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Full-time college athletes should be part-time students

A prominent high school basketball coach offers some solutions for easing college athletes' academic burdens.

As the head boy’s basketball coach at The Westtown (Pa.) School for the past 10 years, I've seen 10 of my players go on to play Division I basketball. This year, we have another five kids on our roster who already have D-I scholarship offers. I’ve witnessed the recruitment and collegiate experiences of my players, and I believe combination of the hours a D-I player is required to commit to his team and the current academic requirements for basketball players do a disservice to players and to coaches alike.

Almost every athlete with a college scholarship has outsized expectations for his professional future, and this is especially true of basketball players. In 2015, the NCAA conducted a poll of its student-athletes, and more than 75% of DI basketball players said they believed it was “somewhat likely” they would play professionally. There are almost 5,250 kids playing D-I ball, and almost 4,000 of them think they are going to be pros. In reality, only about 40 of them each year will become NBA draft picks (the remaining picks are typically foreign-born). A fraction of the remaining group will play overseas, and only a handful of them will last long enough to earn an actual living on the court.

College basketball coaches get paid to win games. They have agents for a reason. They are paid to recruit the best basketball players they can. And while most coaches do really care about those players as people, they care very little about their academics. The truth is, these coaches have no choice. Coaches can't sacrifice winning for academics, or they will no longer be coaching. Basketball and football make billions of dollars for universities. Even if the coaches wanted to trade practice hours for study halls, the money in college sports has gotten so big that athletic directors and presidents wouldn’t really want them to make that choice.

Given players' rigorous schedules, it is almost impossible for them to get a serious education. In my one season of junior varsity basketball at Penn in 1987–88, my GPA dropped to nearly 2.0. I had never been below 3.0 in my life. And this was almost 30 years ago! A D-I coach I’m friends with sent me a sample schedule for one of his players. Tell me: When would you study? (Note: The comments in parentheses are my own.)

Notice how the only time to study is on the bus.

By this point in the week, our student-athlete has spent 250 minutes on basketball-related activities and 215 minutes on class and study hall, after zero minutes on the weekend spent on school.)

On a home game day, our student-athlete has eight hours of basketball commitments and four hours of athletic commitments.

On Friday, the student-athlete has a 14-hour travel day to prepare for an away game on Saturday, which is a 16-hour day that bleeds into early Sunday morning, since the team charters a plane back to campus after the game.

There is nothing about this schedule that says “student-athlete.” This is the schedule of a professional athlete who happens to be attending a university. The vast majority of these athletes will earn their livings away from basketball, but so many of them are being funneled into less challenging courses of study that won’t prepare them for non-sports careers.

The NCAA could fix this system. Here is my proposal to help D-I athletes, particularly in college basketball, get great educations while also pursuing their sports dreams. And to allow coaches to be honest during the recruitment process about the academic expectations of their players and the type of educations they will actually receive.

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1. Allow D-I athletes to take half of a course load for their four years of eligibility. Student-athletes typically take 12 credit hours each semester, which makes them eligible to participate in sports as fulltime students. Under the new rules, athletes could half their course loads and still remain eligible, depending on how much he or she can accomplish in a summer session (see Rule No. 5).

For every year the athlete competes and carries a partial load, the athlete gets a half-year on a full scholarship to be a fulltime student. A four-year athlete would get two extra years to complete his degree. This would leave educational decisions in the hand of the student. If he or she wants to try to manage it all, that’s fine. But by taking a half load, the player could find a better balance. And who wouldn’t want to be in college for an extra two years, anyway?

For the coaches, academic requirements suddenly become manageable for their teams. Twenty hours a week and travel will no longer crush a player’s education, and coaches can be completely honest in the recruitment process about academics. It will no longer be expected that an athlete be a fulltime student, and the ongoing facade of the full time athlete as a fulltime student no longer has to exist.

For the NCAA, I believe a system like this would help reduce calls for student-athletes to be compensated beyond their scholarships. These athletes instead will get rewarded with two more years of a scholarship, and they should be able to earn meaningful degrees that could help them get high-paying jobs after school.

Each university can decide whether to adopt rule No. 1 on a sport-by-sport basis. There are obvious competitive and Title IX implications.

2. Every student-athlete should receive a lifetime scholarship. Allow players to pursue pro careers for as long as they can and return to schools when they’re ready.

3. Every team must remove walk-ons from the Team GPA calculations for APR requirements. They don’t represent the educations that recruited athletes are currently receiving.

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4. Coaches should be required to show recruits the majors on the team for the last five years as compared to the general student population. This must be shown on the recruiting visit and confirmed with an email to the student, parent and compliance officer.

5. Every athlete can participate in only one summer session.These sessions are used to minimize players’ fall and spring academic course loads. Some kids might actually want to go home for their summers and be with their families. They might even get an internship in their potential post-graduation careers, work as camp counselors, mow lawns, work construction, or just chill out. Some kids may not want to go home for various reasons, but they should be prohibited from participating in both summer sessions. These kids, and their coaches, need a break.

6. The Ivy League should allow basketball and football to grant scholarships and follow the model of The Patriot League.They can have high admissions standards and free rides. Right now, parents and kids at the Ivies are faced with a tough choice. If their income bracket requires some payment for a “Great Eight” school, students have to decide between being committed to their teams and being committed to the futures, which is likely off the court. I write all of this not only as a coach but also as the parent of a prospective student-athlete. My son Cole, a high school senior, will be playing golf at Lafayette College this fall. Even though he’ll be asked to practice four hours a day and travel for matches, if his grades aren't strong, it will be “Bye, Bye, Birdie.”

These fixes alone won’t solve all of the NCAA’s problems, but they can help alleviate the pressure on athletes and coaches. These changes could go a long way toward helping the NCAA provide the best academic and athletic experiences for these young men and women who work so hard every day.