Opinion | At Notre Dame, We Believe ‘Student’ Should Come First in ‘Student Athlete’

We college presidents have learned to tread lightly when it comes to the passions of alumni and other fans for our athletic teams, whether it is one competing for a national championship or a less heralded group playing a rivalry game.

Recently, though, we have seen passions aroused in other quarters, as state legislatures have passed laws enabling our student athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness (often referred to as “N.I.L.”) Now, the N.C.A.A. has approved a historic change to allow student athletes to be compensated for use of their N.I.L., with schools and conferences allowed to adopt their own additional policies. The Supreme Court recently issued a ruling against N.C.A.A. regulations limiting education-related funds a school can provide to its student athletes. Such developments will undoubtedly, in the short term at least, create disruption and uncertainty for college sports.

Rather than treading lightly around this situation, we should seize the opportunity for reform and improvement. As we consider the shape of such reform, I propose the following as a guiding principle: Any changes adopted should support and strengthen the educational purpose central to our institutions, and enhance the educational outcomes for our student athletes.

In an interview with The Times six years ago, I expressed support for relaxing prohibitions against student-athletes profiting from use of their own names, images and likenesses for one simple reason — other students are allowed to do so. For example, a student writing a popular fashion blog may earn money by endorsing a product, or another in a rock band may try to profit from a poster with his or her image. We should allow our student athletes similar opportunities. Certainly, there is potential for abuse here. Institutions or their boosters may offer what are actually recruiting or other enticements under the guise of payments for the use of N.I.L. We must fashion regulations to prevent such abuses, while still allowing student athletes to earn fair market value for the use of their N.I.L. I believe that regulations currently under consideration by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation are on the right track.

There are other steps the N.C.A.A. and its member institutions should take to enhance the educational experience for and well-being of our students who play on athletic teams.

A disturbing disparity exists in the graduation rates from sport to sport, and too often the sports with lower graduation rates are those, such as football and basketball, with a high number of Black student athletes. The most regrettable exploitation occurs when an athlete plays her or his sport for the full extent of their eligibility and then leaves the institution without a college degree. We must take all reasonable steps to ensure that student athletes, at the end of their college career, leave with a degree.

To that end I believe — and our practices at Notre Dame reflect this — that once a scholarship is granted, it should stay with the student through graduation, regardless of injuries or performance on the field. Furthermore, if grant-in-aid student athletes in good standing interrupt their education to go professional or for other reasons, we will cover their tuition at any time should they return to college to complete their degrees. Such guarantee of educational benefits should be standard at all of the N.C.A.A.’s colleges and universities. Doing so would keep the education of our student athletes front and center.

Additionally, a national policy should be established to limit the number of days during any academic term in which an institution may require its students to be away from campus for athletic purposes. This is necessary because there are schools where classes are made available online for student athletes, or class schedules are arranged so that a student athlete only attends classes on, for example, two days a week. In-person engagement with faculty and fellow students on a regular basis is an essential part of the college experience. Competition schedules and off-campus practice trips that make students miss much of the academic term cheat those young people of a genuine college experience.

For similar reasons, universities should be prohibited from concentrating student athletes in so-called “athletic dorms” (which the N.C.A.A. banned in the 1990s but still endure in various forms at some schools) and instead include them in the general student housing population. If a student’s interactions and relationships are predominantly defined by their athletic programs, they are not receiving the educational experience they deserve.

For the well-being of our student athletes, health care coverage for athletic injuries should be extended. Currently, the N.C.A.A. requires universities to extend health care coverage for any injuries to student athletes for two years after they exhaust their eligibility. At Notre Dame, we provide coverage for 10 years after the injuries occur. We should extend the provision of coverage for athletic injuries to student athletes across the nation, and find ways for schools with more limited resources to cover these added costs.

Some have called for compensating student-athletes for their athletic performance in college — sometimes called the “pay-for-play” model. I oppose this course. If we take it, our relationship to these young people will be that of an employer to an employee paid for services rendered, rather than to a student for whose education we, the institution, are responsible. There can be no doubt that our student-athletes — whether the star quarterback on our football team or the backup goalie on our women’s soccer team — receive something extremely valuable. They have their tuition, room and board underwritten, giving them the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree, which economists estimate is worth about $1 million in average earnings over the course of a lifetime. More than that, they can enjoy the many ways in which education can enhance one’s life which are not measured by greater earning power.

Of course, talented athletes who want to play professionally should not be forced to go to college to develop their talents in their sport. Every professional sport should create a minor or development league open to athletes with high potential. Professional baseball, hockey, basketball and many Olympic sports have systems in place that allow athletes to become professional while foregoing the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate athletics. Perhaps it is time for football to develop one as well. Young athletes would then have a choice: They could either sign up with a development league, or they could attend college and pursue a degree, while playing the sport they love.

Cynicism about college athletics is abundant and perhaps understandable, because some of its practices have given observers good reasons to be cynical. Still, I have spoken to many alumni who say the challenge of competing in their sport at a high level while attending college taught them invaluable lessons for their personal and professional lives. There is still reason to pursue that ideal of college sports, without making them into a semi-pro league.

Let’s seize the opportunity for reform, while focusing on the work that is at the heart of our mission: the education of young people.

John I. Jenkins is the president of the University of Notre Dame.

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