I’ll admit it was hard to focus on basketball this weekend. News that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European dominated my thoughts. As a wave of Nationalistic fervour gripped the UK I had never felt less proud and less part of the country of my birth. Despite this, for 60 young men from around the world their dream of being drafted into the NBA was realised on Thursday night.
I have never pretended to have much knowledge of College Basketball, some teams will have made some good picks, others not so much. It is hard even for experts to decipher, at this point, which players will have a lasting impact in the league. The view of many was this year’s draft class was not particularly strong. There will no doubt be some who forge solid careers in this league, others may never play a single game.
The culture of collegiate athletics in America is one that is completely alien to us in Europe. Those who play university sport in Europe are talented amateurs who have no real desire or expectation to make it to the professional ranks. Those who have been identified as promising youngsters will have been transferred to academies at a very young age and there it will be decided whether they have the talent to make it professionally.
In America it is completely different. Talented high school athletes will be heavily recruited by the top University athletic programs, for division 1 basketball alone 4,563 scholarships are handed out to young men, many of them from hugely disadvantaged backgrounds. College recruiters pray on the financial insecurities of these families often illegally offering money, free housing on campus, a car and many other perks to lure prospective students to their program. These scholarships are sold as a way for these men to improve their prospects, receive a college education and have a better life for it. The reality is that they are simply there to play sport for the university.
In 2015 the NCAA, the organisation which regulates college sports in the United States, generated almost 1 billion dollars from a combination of TV and advertising deals. Individual institutions like Texas A & M and Ohio State each generated nearly $200,000 via their various athletic programs. All this money is being generated by young athletes who aren’t payed a cent, whilst coaches at large colleges are some of the best paid in the country. It is exploitation on a grand scale.
If you consider that 60 players were drafted into the NBA on Thursday night and each year 4,563 scholarships are handed out, your chances of being drafted by an NBA team are a paltry 1.3%. So what happens to the vast majority who are not going to make it in the NBA? Graduation rates for Division 1 mens Basketball are around 66% meaning that 1 in every 3 men who is offered this apparently life changing opportunity will receive almost no real benefit from attending college to play sports.
There have been a countless string scandals involving athletics programs from top Universities around America. From the infamous SMU pay to play scandals throughout the 70s and 80s to the recent accusations of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina. Whilst there is money to be made there will always be those who bend and break the rules to gain a competitive advantage.
There is certainly an uneasy relationship between college sports, which are big business, and how they fit in to the framework of the non profit organisations they are affiliated with. However, it usually the students who suffer the consequences of these scandals, loosing scholarships and a chance to graduate.
It is the cases of academic fraud that really reveal certain institution’s attitudes towards their student athletes. UNC, the University of Miami and the University of Minnesota have all been caught committing academic fraud. Having students take ‘make believe’ classes which had little or no content to boost grade averages is apparently widespread. At the University of Miami, football players were given tests which included the answers and at UNC and Minnesota academic counsellors admitted to doing coursework for student athletes. It is clear that for many colleges their student athletes are just athletes and are in no way there to receive an education.
It is hard to blame the young students in these situations. Playing collegiate level sports is a serious commitment, at some universities athletes are expected to spend upwards of 30 hours practicing, training and playing matches. Trying to balance that with academic classes is incredibly difficult, I know I personally would have struggled massively to get my degree whilst playing 30 hours of sport a week, and I had the benefit of a better secondary school education than most. Is it really any surprise that when offered a way to keep their dream of playing college and maybe professional sport alive, by those who are meant to have their best interests at heart, many jump at the opportunity. With the constant stream of new revelations regarding a variety of college programs it becomes difficult to believe that the interests and futures of college athletes are of any real concern to many institutions.
I am not sure what the solution to this problem is. College sports are massive in the States with many College football teams averaging higher attendances than professional teams. The College system is a vital pool of talent that feeds into the professional ranks and as a result won’t be going anywhere. I’m not saying that the system that feeds into the Premier League is perfect by any means, far too many young players are left by the wayside with little idea of how to redirect their lives. The difference is that the academies that take on these players are not making vast sums of money out of them. There needs to be serious reform in the way that student athletes are compensated for the time they give to sports programs, because the idea that they receive an education is in many cases frankly laughable.