In my four years with Purdue’s football team, I tore ligaments, broke bones, lifted four times my weight a hundred times over, studied football more than my academics, rose before the sun, and stayed up long past its fall in the hope of making it to the NFL. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone on the roster – around 85 other young men – made the same sacrifices with the same hopes. As my tenure was coming to an end, it became obvious that fewer than 10% of us would get an invite to an NFL training camp, let alone an actual contract offer.
And even if you did get that contract, you were hardly set up for life. I was the highest-ranked prospect on our campus and one of the few players to be drafted by an NFL team … and my professional career last three years. I earned good money, but nowhere near enough to retire on – and I was one of the lucky few who got a chance to play professionally. For the players who don’t make it – and that’s the vast majority of them – there is hardly enough time, resources, or care to prepare them for a future beyond football.
On the day school started we always had a meeting to discuss what we wanted to accomplish as a team for the year. As student-athletes, the meeting had to incorporate our academic goals. If the meeting was an hour, the academic portion would constitute 10 minutes covering the minimum we needed to achieve academically to be eligible to play football. And anyone who wanted to take the “student” in “student-athlete” seriously was in for a struggle. We weren’t allowed to take classes past 2pm in case they interfered with practice. Likewise, summer internships were off the table as they could conflict with training camp. Some classes were unavailable because it was believed the requirements were too strenuous when combined with an athlete’s schedule.
Meanwhile, across America coaches, staff, and universities, reap the benefits of our talent and sacrifices, regardless of our futures once we graduate. Coaches, who often earn millions, can boast they develop and recruit players worthy of a place in the NFL, and the universities can sell more tickets and present themselves as some kind of talent factory.
Often when I pointed out the unfair treatment of myself and my teammates, I was be told I had nothing to complain about because I was getting a free education. Society loves adopting the Laura Ingraham “shut up and dribble” trope when athletes say what they stand for outside of sports. Anyone who believes a free education – one that me and my teammates couldn’t even fully utilize due to our athletic obligations – gives universities permission to exploit their athletes should remember that our education isn’t free. We worked for our education by bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to our schools. And we also sacrificed our bodies – our biggest assets – in our pursuit to go pro.
So what should be done? Of course, student-athletes and their families have some responsibility to make sure that they get the most out of college, in both sporting and academic terms. And, yes, some college athletes do graduate with good academic records. But most of them come from wealthy backgrounds where generations of their families have attended college. Many college athletes, including myself, come from single-parent, low-income homes and are one of the first in their extended family to attend university – when we enter higher education we have little idea how to navigate the terrain. Who is looking out for the interest of the student-athlete and helping them to emphasize their academics? Academic advisors and coaches need to look for creative ways to allow student-athletes to optimize their time in college and prepare them for the most likely outcome – a regular 9-5 job rather than a multimillion dollar NFL or NBA contract.
New rules introduced this year mean college players can now make money from sponsorship or personal appearances. It’s a start, but a fixed income for collegiate athletes is only fair due to the enormous amounts of money they bring to their schools. Being a student-athlete leaves little time for pursuing any other money-making opportunities. I was given meals, books, and schooling, but my mother didn’t have the money to help me with anything else that might arise. Most college athletes wear their university apparel, not because of school pride but because they don’t have any money to buy anything else.
Student-athletes need to be paid – and studies have shown colleges could afford to do so. It’s fair compensation for what the money they generate for the school, and the risks that sports like football pose to mental and physical health. An education they most often are deterred from fully exploiting is not enough. And student-athletes need resources to best prepare for life after college, regardless of whether they enter a professional career or not. We encourage young people to go to college to open their minds and give themselves the best opportunities for life afterwards. It’s time we offer our student-athletes those same benefits outside of their sport.