Student-Athletes = Professional Athletes?

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College sports began as an enjoyable way for students to compete in sporting events. Today, it has ballooned into a highly profitable industry that looks and feels like professional sports. With millions of dollars at stake for elite athletic programs, there is increasing institutional pressure on student-athletes to perform and deliver championships. Coaches need wins to justify big salaries, athletic departments seek trophies for alums and boosters, and university administrators want to fuel school pride to validate their new stadiums and fundraising campaigns.

Unfortunately, the cost of winning is often paid at the expense of student-athletes’ academics. Some athletes receive a mediocre education due to their demanding time commitment to sports. Recently, the band-aid was ripped off this sports and academics tug-of-war with UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic scandal, where athletes were enrolled in nonexistent “paper classes.” When 99% of student-athletes will not go pro after college, receiving a subpar education does them a great disservice by limiting their long-term career success and job prospects. Student-athletes should not have to be the sacrificial lambs of this booming industry and our love of the game.

Big Sports + Big Money = Big Pressure

In 2014, the top 10 highest sports-revenue universities in the country collectively generated over $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, the NCAA, the non-profit governing college sports, earned just under $1 billion in 2014.

New Top 10 Sports Revenue Schools of 2014 chart

Source: USA Today (2014)

It is hard to argue that college sports are not in “the big leagues” given the sponsorship dollars and corporate partnerships. In 2013, March Madness generated $1.15 billion in ad revenue – significantly more than the NBA playoffs and Finals, which yielded $929 million. It is a testament to the prosperity of the college sports industry that college basketball can surpass professional basketball. However, college players receive an education as compensation instead of any money for their efforts.

3 College v Pro BBall Ad Revenue graph big

Source: Kantar Media Study (2013)

Student-athletes deserve a fair trade for their efforts. This lucrative industry is supported and built on their sweat and hard work. If their sole compensation is an education, then their degree needs to have real value and be backed by a quality education. Otherwise, schools may violate their pact with student-athletes by providing them with a substandard education in order to capitalize on the millions of dollars generated by these athletes.

Life of a Student-Athlete – Sizzle or Fizzle?

We often think that it is glamorous being a college athlete. If you are an elite athlete playing in the power conferences, your games may be televised, you could have a strong fan base, and people may flock to you. Is this what life is really like? Is this really the whole story?

SA Lifestyle overview chart


Student-athletes devote an overwhelming amount of time to their sport. A 2011 NCAA study shows that collegiate football players spend 43.3 hours per week on their sport – more than a full-time job. Combined with time spent traveling to games and meets, it is extremely challenging for athletes to focus on their studies.

The time commitment and constant pressure to win can promote incentives to cheat as academics take a back seat. In 2012, Harvard basketball players were caught cheating. Even Harvard students felt this pressure – at a university that does not award athletic scholarships and prides itself on academic excellence. At other schools, academic advisors may enroll students in effortless classes so time can be devoted to athletics over academics.

The sports business culture can also discourage those who wish to academically challenge themselves. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter testified that advisors prevented him from pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor and steered him towards easier majors. He claimed he was instructed to take easier classes catering to his football schedule.

Colter is not alone. Pro women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants and former football player Devon Ramsay are suing UNC-Chapel Hill and the NCAA. They claim neither institution have done enough to ensure that athletes receive a quality education, as both were enrolled in the nonexistent “paper classes.”

Complaints about a substandard education and limited life opportunities extend beyond the classroom. In addition to “fake” classes at UNC, Ramsay says “completing an internship is almost impossible,” which would have helped him find and prepare for a job after college. Due to year-round training, athletes are often unable to take advantage of opportunities that a regular student would have, including studying abroad.

The results of this stressful lifestyle are clear in a 2014 CNN investigation. Based on test scores, it revealed an alarming academic achievement gap between athletes in basketball and football programs relative to their peers at the same university. Also in 2014, former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham blew the whistle on pervasive student-athlete illiteracy – she found that 60% of 183 UNC players could not read above an eighth-grade level. Why is this? Are student-athletes at fault? Or has the system failed them?

Pressure Cooker Boils Over: UNC Slammed with Sanction After Sanction

In 2010, UNC’s academic fraud first came to light and has only grown bigger with further investigation. For 20 years, UNC enrolled over 3,000 students (mostly athletes) in nonexistent “paper classes,” falsely inflated grades, and generally operated as a diploma factory for athletes. Many classes like the infamous Swahili classes lacked a professor, classroom, and assigned classwork. This allowed student-athletes to obtain a degree in African and Afro-American Studies. Arguably, many of these students really majored in football or basketball.

 New New UNC scandal timeline


In a May 2015 NCAA report, the university was criticized for its “lack of institutional control,” “impermissible benefits” by falsifying grades, and “violation of academic freedom.” The hearing to determine any punishment and penalties for UNC has not yet occurred. UNC is facing possible suspensions, vacated wins, and forfeiture of postseason games for multiple teams.

On June 11, 2015, the federal agency SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) placed UNC on academic probation. UNC has to reform immediately to maintain college accreditation – the ability to grant college degrees and diplomas. Without accreditation, the school could lose its standing in the academic world and face plunging enrollment and possibly closure.

If Everyone is Doing It, Is It Okay?

UNC is not the only university guilty of academic fraud with its athletes. What is clear in the lengthy 732-page NCAA supplemental report is that the system of collegiate athletics is flawed – especially at the elite Division I level where so much money is at stake for winning programs.

Many Division I colleges have fake or effortless classes in an obscure department expressly designed for the athletes, or an environment that could promote this in the future. However, with federal agencies penalizing universities for their actions, this system may not be sustainable for long.

New Past Academic Scandals


A Murky Future for One-time Superstars

Once college is over, student-athletes can face a disappointing future that excludes their dream job of being a professional athlete. Only 1.6% of college football players will be drafted by the NFL. The odds are even worse for basketball players at 1.2%. After college, the other 99% of student-athletes who do not go pro often stumble. They may find themselves woefully unprepared with limited job skills and thus less marketable than their school peers.

New NCAA rate of going pro chart

Source: NCAA (2015)

Unless something changes, the future looks bleak for some student-athletes. The pressure on student-athletes will only grow with time as amateur college sports increasingly resemble professional sports. The NCAA, universities, and the government need to implement reforms that protect student-athletes and guarantee them a quality education.

There are three main initiatives that could help mitigate the academic disadvantages faced by the country’s 460,000 student-athletes.

1. Limiting Hours Spent on Sports

The NCAA and academic agencies should develop a robust inspection system to ensure universities are meeting academic standards for athletes. A more frequent and meticulous monitoring system could also prevent student-athletes from spending over 40 hours per week on their sport, especially when NCAA regulations state that the maximum time for athletically-related activities is 20 hours per week. Universities should also limit athletic pressure by ensuring coaches and athletic directors sign off on the hours, with strict penalties if NCAA rules are violated.

2. Ensuring Academic Quality in Classes

Universities can protect their student-athletes by making education a priority. In addition to eliminating illegitimate classes, universities should implement a certification system for all classes that student-athletes take. The head coach, athletic director, and president of the university should certify that classes are of high academic caliber. If classes with this stamp of approval are found to be “paper classes,” the penalties should be similar to what UNC is facing: stripped wins, possible suspension or termination for coaches and certain teams, and the loss of academic accreditation as a university.

3. Giving Back Missed Opportunities

Under the NCAA’s current revenue distribution plan, only 5% of almost $1 billion in revenue is allocated for “academic enhancement.” The NCAA, schools, and power conferences need to set aside larger funds for programs to protect student-athletes’ futures. Schools need to beef up the athletic departments’ academic, career, and life skills departments. The millions in revenue student-athletes help generate should be used to protect their future career success. A comprehensive program can be implemented by universities, the NCAA, and power conferences to transition student-athletes from sports to the work force – such as training in leadership development and job readiness. Academic grants from the NCAA and power conferences can also provide for tutoring and scholarships. In addition, providing workshops on time and stress management and hosting job and internship fairs could help student-athletes beyond the classroom.

Final Thoughts

Although the sports culture is electrifying and highly intoxicating, the thrill will end in four years. This is the most important factor for universities and student-athletes to remember. Student-athletes should not be left empty-handed – injury-ridden, jobless, and struggling to cope with life without competitive sports. These champions have given so much to their university and their fans. They deserve a quality education, a chance to achieve their dreams beyond sports, and long-term career success. Otherwise, we should stop pretending and admit elite college sports are professional sports. We should start paying them for the value they bring to the game and share a slice of the billions of dollars they help generate.


The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace – providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success. TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services to help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their business and career objectives. TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent, and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.

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