Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Early Departing Athletes and Education

There is widespread belief that the NBA and NCAA will work together in the near future to establish an age/experience floor for potential prospects where individuals who want to play in the NBA will need to attend at least two years of college or have some form of equivalent experience. This change would be an important element in establishing a meaningful methodology to attack the general perception of a lack of education among student athletes who leave college early to play professionally. In the current system a number of individuals focus on their NBA prospects through their adherence to the one-year minimum rule, but that “year” in college is really only about four-five months with only the first semester or first two quarters actually mattering because these individuals are only focused on maintaining their basketball eligibility. For these “one-and-done” players after eligibility is assured there is no further incentive to attend class and utilize the value of the scholarship.

A change in the minimum requirement from one year to two years forces these players to take classes seriously for at least one and half genuine years. This extra effort is especially important because for a vast majority of freshman, regardless of their athletic affiliations, the first year of college is much more general in the educational focus which limits the usefulness of that education without follow-up from the specificity of major study in sophomore, junior and senior years. Therefore, it could be argued that spending only a “year” in college is a generally meaningless 4-5 months that has little value to a “one-and-done”.

If the two-year minimum is established there still needs to be a focus applied to athletes to ensure that the educational opportunities they receive are suitable and targeted. Note that while the topic focuses on educational opportunities for student athletes in general, there will be additional attention paid to student athletes who leave college early before completing their degrees in an attempt to acquire employment as a professional athlete; therefore, this discussion primarily involves football and male basketball players. Finally it is important to acknowledge the fact that most student athletes, despite the stereotypes, actually complete school with a degree in a field that allows them to have a promising future career outside of playing sports.

One of the problems with a career as a professional athlete is that it has an inherently short lifespan. Very few athletes play beyond the age of 35 and those who do either play at a league minimum or on the waning years of a long-term contract that will be their last contract. Understand that there should be little sympathy for these individuals because league salary minimums in all four major sports (football, baseball, basketball and hockey) are considerably higher than a vast majority of jobs. However, with a career lasting only 5-15 years and 25-35+ years remaining before eligibility for Social Security, a majority of players will need to find secondary careers to fill this gap.

Facilitating the development of this second career can be difficult because these individuals have been competing in athletics for their prime adult professional development years and entry into a secondary career marketplace will typically result in competition with younger more experienced and prepared candidates. Due to the connections-based elements in the job market some of these athletes can parlay their fame into opportunity, but for most this strategy will not work. Therefore, colleges must create a new strategy for education that can help athletes manage these weaknesses when attempting to acquire a second career after their playing days are over.

With regards to this second career some individuals have argued that student-athletes should be allowed to major in their participating sport, i.e. football players should be allowed to major in “football”, basketball players in “basketball”, etc. Clearly this idea is not so ridiculous that it should be immediately dismissed out of hand with a sarcastic attitude that such a “degree” would be cookie-cutter and worthless. However, the problem with the various proposals that embody this idea is that the degree is not targeted. Society is continuously becoming more and more specialized and the idea behind this new type of “sports” major is too broad. Think about the nature of the job application process, when application-sorting software is “thinning the herd” is it going to select an application for the interview process if that individual majored in “basketball”?

Some could argue that the general failure of the “sports” major to attract the attention of employers and their resume software would be more indicative of negative stereotyping than lack of skill. While there would be some truth to this belief, the generality of the major itself would lead software and humans to draw their own negative conclusions regarding the efficacy of the major. Simply seeing a particular sport implies a focus on playing that sport not on other associated analytical intricacies. Proponents would argue that this is not correct, but even if the studied curriculum supports that position, there is still limited information regarding exactly what elements were studied. It is akin to comparing a major in medicine versus a major in radiology; one clearly defines the section of expertise where the other defines generality.

Unfortunately the weakest aspect of these proposals is that some of the proposed curriculum for a degree in “football” includes “labs” that are worth credit, but appear to be nothing more than simple practice sessions. Proponents would counter that performing arts majors typically receive credit for conducting practice sessions to hone their skills, so there should be little difference between those majors and this new “sport” major. While on its face this comparison may seem apt it runs into a philosophical problem regarding longevity. Most careers as a musician, actor, or even dancer can last decades while a career as a professional athlete typically lasts only five-ten years. This timeframe difference places a greater weight for value on practice for performance arts versus athletes.

Another concern regarding these “lab” sessions is that the failure rate for becoming a professional athlete is incredibly high even for those individuals who believe and have others who believe that they will be successful. Failure as a professional athlete would result in a career change, but the “lab” sessions acting as valid credits towards a major would be basically worthless to the individual due to their general player-only specificity. Therefore, it would be better if a more flexible study system were developed in place of these labs.

Also having such a specific major would compartmentalize athletes both among each other and among other non-student athletes, which could lead to problems. For example while everyone likes to believe in honest evaluation, among student athletes there have been numerous examples of favoritism within numerous universities, especially for football and male basketball players due to the money involved in those particular sports and general passion. Isolating numerous athletes in the same general academic regiment could increase the probability that standards become lax further reducing the usefulness of the degree. Additionally how many different specific sport majors are going to exist? Will female field hockey players have a “field hockey” major or will wrestlers have a “wrestling” major? What influence would this expansion have on resource utilization at a given university?

A final immediate concern with the idea of a “sport” major is that it seems unnecessary. In some context to a cynic it feels like a strategy to simply increase the probability of retaining eligibility for the student-athlete. Again the short length of career associated with a professional athlete limits the usefulness of such a major due to its generality; basically it is a major for the first five to ten years of an individual’s career with little value in the last twenty to thirty. Going forward with such a mindset is institutionally irresponsible. Instead creating a targeted program for athletes among already existing majors with an increased level of flexibility for appropriate specificity seems more appropriate to support the multiple phases of an athlete’s career as well as their mental growth.

It is important to note that these targeted programs will not be mandatory in any way; clearly it is the prerogative of any individual to study whatever he/she desires in college. However, for those individuals who do not have a strong opinion about what they want to do after their playing days are over a brief interview should be conducted with career counselors before enrollment to identify interests. The key issue in these targeted programs is to apply the experience and skills that athletes acquire during their playing days to ease the transition from primary career as a player to the secondary career as something else.

The first step to identifying these educational programs is to identify the most likely secondary career possibilities. While some caution may be prudent to avoid stereotyping regarding the intelligence of most athletes, the real nature of this identification is to focus on the interests of the athletes. Obviously one of the most popular secondary careers is broadcasting either on a national stage for an organization like NBC, ESPN or FOX or on a local level typically on radio broadcasts for the alma mater. Another common option is to move from player to coach or front office position for a particular sports organization. The third and last “common” secondary career is moving from player to agent using experience in the industry as a player and interactions with existing agents to create a credential basis.

In addition to these “common” secondary careers other possibilities for athletes include becoming a financial advisor or accountant to help other players manage their money successfully; also modern sports have embraced the inclusion of advanced statistical analysis to help make personnel decisions opening up numerous additional job opportunities in these analytical fields for sports organizations. Quality medical personnel are almost always in demand allowing former athletes to become medical trainers for various institutions, either high schools and colleges or a sports team, without the need to acquire medical degrees. Finally for a number of former athletes maintaining quality physical performance demands understanding nutrition and proper off-the-field exercise regimens, elements that can be used to transition into a secondary career as a personal trainer. Fortunately most colleges already offer coursework that grant the necessary skills to succeed in these fields. With this in mind it is appropriate for schools to properly guide student-athletes who are interested in them to the necessary course work to maximize success.

These secondary career strategies are easily established for those who stay in college and receive a degree; however, what does a university do about individuals who leave college early for the professional ranks before acquiring a degree? Clearly if these individuals want to maximize their success at the professional ranks they cannot continue to attend classes due to only a limited amount of time available to spend in class versus studying and practicing at the professional level. Therefore, if pursuit of a degree is postponed for typically at least five years, what is the strategy to initiate a return to this pursuit? One of the obvious problems with restarting study after a long layoff is the diminishment of knowledge over that layoff. Some educational critics cite this “loss of knowledge” as a reason for administering year-round school because of time off for just the three months of summer. Imagine what type of loss will occur over five or more years, one might think that an individual would have to start all over from the beginning. So what should be done?

There are two important elements to this “return to education” issue. The first element is what financial responsibilities do colleges have to former student-athletes who leave for the professional leagues early and then later want to return to continue their education? When a player leaves for the pros that individual foregoes any remaining eligibility to compete at the college/amateur level; therefore, any continuation of an athletic scholarship would be unlikely because there is no quid-pro-quo involved. However, a special academic scholarship could be created for returning former players if those players had certain grade point averages upon leaving the college treating this returning player similar to an academic scholarship received by an incoming high school student. Note that a grade point average floor is required for this new scholarship category because such a floor demonstrates that these former players were taking their studies seriously and actually acquiring knowledge for a secondary career instead of simply trying to maintain their eligibility.

Another possible strategy is to simply extend the athletic scholarship as a single sided element. Some would support this strategy because overall due to economy of scale universities have to invest only a very small amount of money per student and it could be argued that the player in question produced more than fair value during his/her playing days and this scholarship is simply balancing that budget.

The second element is how to prime the returning player for reentry into the educational environment. Unfortunately there is no easy means to accomplish this priming because these “new” incoming students have been away from a study heavy environment for years. It would be difficult to simply go back to square one and start over. One strategy would involve incorporating a pass-fail system for certain classes during the first semester back and then use a grading system for the second semester and beyond; this would create a gauged “stress” environment for the returning players ramping up the difficulty with time allowing for acclimatization to the study environment. However, one concern with this method is that students will not take the first semester seriously because it is pass-fail and thus will not develop the proper mindset for future classes when the grading system changes. The best option may be simply to develop course work so there are interactive elements that catalyze interest in the study portions of the work because of their necessity to succeed in the interactive portions. This design would also help students who are entering these particular fields from high school as well.

Another important element for this priming is to eliminate any stigma associated with age. Some individuals have trepidation about returning to college because at the age of 28+ they think that society feels it is strange that a person so “old” is still attempting to acquire a degree. Another negative rationality may be that returning to college because their playing career is over brands the individual as a failure. Neutralizing these negative elements chiefly involves creating a mindset where returning to college does not represent failure, but instead the pathway to secondary success because the time allotted for their first career has now ended and it is time to find success in another career.

The most important elements to addressing the concern with athletes and their education are course design and associated interest. The first important step is when an athlete enters the college environment to inform the individual of the probability that he will be able to retire after their playing career is over (very low) and identify their interests to gauge what field will produce a desired secondary career. Linking interest instead of simply focusing on keeping the athlete eligible will actually increase eligibility probability through increased engagement and work interest as well as increase skill acquisition. Clearly one of the critical duties of college is to further the development of quality individuals who will produce positive effects in society, thus course work to this end must be taught early; however, there must also be introductory courses for skills required to pursue the secondary career as well.

Overall the creation of a “sport” major for certain sports appears to be a needless strategy that has few benefits. The general gamble of such a degree is that an individual majoring in Basketball will be able to somehow use the major to significantly enhance his ability to make more money as a professional basketball player to the point where once the playing career ends that individual will have enough money to effectively retire from the workforce. This strategy is a gamble because if that does not happen due to bad luck, injury or just lack of ability then this individual will have acquired a major that is effectively worthless even more so than the stereotypical “sociology” or “general studies” degrees that are ridiculed by other parties. Some may counter that a “sports” major would allow secondary careers like the ones mentioned above, but the flaw with that argument is that there is no reason to establish a “sports” major because specialization majors for those types of careers already exist. Basically a “sports” major would be perceived, and due to the typically proposed “labs” taking credits and time, effectively be a dumb down version of those already existing majors. Therefore, instead of establishing a “sports” major, the goal of improving education among athletes should focus on better applying what colleges already offer to what interests student-athletes.

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