We all know that student athletes rarely go to class or participate in the daily life of a university. They will never graduate. They are too busy practicing and working for those overpaid coaches for the chance to make it to the pros. They are exploited by their colleges and should be paid — but will not be because the NCAA is too strong an institution to break and so all student athletes will continue in servitude. A student athlete is a myth.
We've been hearing a lot about fake news lately. The global statements made in the first paragraph are just that. Are there kernels of truth in the paragraph about some student athletes playing on NCAA teams? No doubt. However, to assume being a student athlete implies much of the above is nonsense. What most people see on TV — where most impressions are formed — represents less than 5 percent of all student athletes. And here I'm including men's and women's Division I basketball and the Power Five football teams as well as other major D-I events.
Given the constant media exposure of the top teams in football and basketball, this is an easy trap to fall into for any of us.
Even being on one of the elite teams hardly means that the student athlete either will go pro or will not graduate, two of the oft-cited outcomes for these students. These outcomes are true for a small percentage of student athletes. Does that mean we should not worry about these negative outcomes for these student athletes? Of course not.
It does not mean, however, that we should be blinded by this negative — but good-for-headlines — portrayal of "student athletes." Every now and then, it is worth trying to understand and appreciate the other 400,000 student athletes that generally fall far outside this description. These are NCAA Division I, II, and III student athletes who compete in sports, or at levels, rarely covered by the media — not to mention the non-NCAA student athletes who play in associations like the NAIA. How many of the 24 NCAA sports with 30 championships can you name? Sure, basketball, football, hockey, baseball, soccer, volleyball, tennis ... and probably a few more. But I bet you'd have to do a search to come up with many of them. (Did you have fencing or rifle on your list?)
These are students who want to continue to play the sport they've already been playing for many years. Undoubtedly, they will dedicate a good deal of time in college to the sport. However, they are doing it primarily because they enjoy it in the same way another student might be part of a sorority or fraternity, or the debate team, or the chess team. The majority of NCAA student athletes do not receive an athletic scholarship. Most who do receive an athletic scholarship only get a percentage, say 25 percent or 50 percent, of their college costs. In fact, only five sports — all in D-I — are "head count" sports that give a full scholarship automatically.
It's true that graduation rates, as reported by the federal government for student athletes, are not as high as we'd like them to be. For example, in D-I, the student athlete six-year federal graduation rate is about 66 percent, and in Division III, it is about 71 percent. But put these in context! The D-I student body grad rate is about 63 percent, and the D-III rate is about 62 percent — both student body rates are below the student athlete rate. (Similarly, D-II's student athlete grad rate is greater than its student body grad rate.) These are not NCAA numbers but Department of Education numbers. So, yes, we want to improve grad rates — but let's focus on all students and not just student athletes.
Is all right in the world of college athletics? No. Many issues remain to be addressed — for example, the relatively low graduation rates for D-I black football student athletes.
Guaranteed multiyear scholarships, full cost of attendance covered in the scholarships, unlimited meals for student athletes — these are a few of the gains in recent years. However, for the vast majority of student athletes, these changes have minimal impact. For example, in the largest division, D-III, with over 180,000 student athletes, there are no athletic scholarships!
We should be concerned about student athlete well-being. We should. But people need to understand the issues and support and champion the overwhelming majority of student athletes who really are student athletes!
Kurt Beron is Professor of Economics at The University of Texas at Dallas and UT Dallas's NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative. The opinions expressed here may not represent the views of the officers, staff, or membership of the NCAA.