MAXWELL: Keep the “student’ in “student-athlete’
10/1/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Big-time sports are out of control at many of the nation’s major colleges and universities. And matters will worsen if Walter Byers has a few friends in the Republican-controlled 104th Congress.
Byers headed the National Collegiate Athletic Association for 36 years before retiring in 1987, and he is best-known for his Draconian policies that snared some of the nation’s football powerhouses, including the University of Florida in Gainesville. Byers now believes that athletes are human beings after all. In his belated mea culpa, a book titled Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, he outlines his five-part “College Athletes’ Bill of Rights” that would end what he considers the master-slave arrangement between the schools and their varsity athletes.
The major provisions of the plan would:
+ Let Congress end the NCAA’s authority to set arbitrary limits on the value of scholarships. The market would determine a scholarship’s value.
+ Let athletes hold jobs during the school year. At this time, the NCAA prohibits athletes from working. This change would permit players to endorse products, as coaches now do.
+ Let athletes transfer from one institution to another without restricting their eligibility.
+ Let players freely negotiate contracts with agents.
+ Let states force colleges and universities to give workers’ compensation coverage to varsity athletes.
Most major athletic programs need some serious changes, a handful deserving the death penalty. But Byers is misguided if he believes that matters will improve by giving wider latitude to immature teenagers urged on by the faithful and bankrolled by generous boosters and corporate sponsors.
The present system, where athletes ostensibly are students first, needs to be fixed, not scrapped.
Byers’ proposal, however, would set athletes further apart from their schoolmates, creating a two-tiered system that gives even a greater number of perks to superjocks. Such a climate would encourage the kind of abuses, physical and otherwise, plaguing too many campuses already.
Look, for example, at a situation here at Florida that demonstrates the need for more, not fewer, controls over athletes. In August, four football standouts _ Reidel Anthony, Teako Brown, Jamie Richardson and Fred Taylor _ were charged with fraudulently using a credit card belonging to fellow student Anita Jarnagin. The players remained on the team while the State Attorney’s office investigated and decided to let the players perform community service instead of prosecuting them.
Meanwhile, the Student Judicial Affairs Committee, which could have opted for a much tougher penalty, suspended the players for one game. The committee’s director reneged on a promise to let Jarnagin participate in the sentencing hearing. Jarnagin, an innocent victim, is appropriately outraged. More troubling is that, since Sept. 1, when the incident became public, she has caught hell in this football-crazed town that Money magazine voted the “best” place to live in the U.S.
“I’ve had people calling me in the middle of the night saying things like, “If you don’t quit f___ with our team, we’re going to f_- you up,’ ” she told the Florida Times-Union. “Then I had one guy call me and offer any amount of money I wanted just to drop the charges. Everybody keeps saying we have to treat these boys like everybody else. I didn’t get treated like everybody else. I never realized how much this town is run by football.”
Byers’ plan would give football, the institution, more power to “run” towns like Gainesville. Top athletes, like Florida’s foursome, already do what they damned well please without fear of serious punishment.
If the climate were more lax, hordes of unscrupulous business people would line up to hand out soft, high-paying jobs to their favorite running backs, and bench-warming third-stringers would file hundreds of bogus workers’ compensation claims each season. And think of the arrogance of young superjocks who suddenly would see themselves as subcontractors _ which essentially is what they would become under Byers’ proposal.
How many players, moreover, would desert a University of Florida for a Northern Illinois University, where they may have a better chance of starting? How many high school seniors would hire lawyers to negotiate the value of their scholarships?
Instead of accommodating the worst instincts of collegiate sports, institutions must bolster academic standards; effectively oversee the operations of sports as is done with other departments and programs; and control skyrocketing costs. Most important, though, officials must give real meaning to the “student” side of the term student-athlete.
The last thing the nation’s sports-obsessed campuses need is more ego-bloating rights for teenagers in uniform and more ways for businesses to profit at the expense of academics.
Wake Forest University President Thomas K. Hearn Jr. offers some excellent advice in the Sept. 15 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:
“The real issue is whether college athletics can be reformed. Some people believe we have passed the point of no return and suggest that we are not dealing with a compromised system but a corrupt system. I believe that it is compromised but not irredeemably corrupt, and that the way to improve it is not to do more of what renders it corrupt, but to take steps to reform it.”
Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.