Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
Is it possible American universities are failing to provide the right education to their highest-paid athletes? Let’s be honest: If the star at State U. is pulling in $9 million from NIL endorsements, what subjects already on the university’s books will best benefit that young professional?
Said another way, how should rapidly professionalizing collegians approach the concept of education now that some of them are making millions?
I recently gave a speech in Melbourne, Australia, to a gathering of sport executives from the Australian Football League (AFL) and National Basketball League (NBL) and rather smugly declared the word “education” problematic. It carried too many negative connotations for young folks who don’t want content to exceed 140 characters or two minutes of video highlights.
Thankfully, the local media didn’t pick up on a university professor throwing rocks at the academy, particularly since I could have offered my opinion more eloquently. Learning is great (and in the movie Animal House there’s even a statue suggesting “Knowledge is Good”), but how we think about suggesting anyone get more or better education is tricky.
Why is that?
Well, one school of thought holds when teachers suggest more schooling, some of our younger charges believe we are offering potentially boring or useless investments of time. In fact, many readers will admit to having asked at some point, “Why do I need _______ (fill in the blank using words such as French, physics, algebra, psych, calculus, etc.) when I’ll never use that stuff?”
One pat response maintains that learning something difficult is good for the development of the individual’s brain. Hard now is good later. And regardless of difficult or simple, a corollary to that response is that everything we learn (and when/how we learn it) matters.
That bring us to today’s topic.
In the old days (pre-1960), the residential institution expected students to receive a broad smorgasbord of liberal arts courses in literature, psychology, philosophy, the sciences, math and possibly a foreign language. That core, and the ability to “learn how to learn,” would serve the students for the rest of their lives.
They could learn business (a dirty word), if they ever needed to muddy their hands, from someone else.
Today? Business education has become an in-demand, well-endowed course of study. And right now, a small cluster of pre-professional athletes on American campuses are growing up faster than ever, having to learn (almost overnight) about tax shelters, investment portfolios, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), social media management, finance/accounting and a host of other topics tied to their growing wealth.
There may be a chance for these two phenomena to dovetail. But what courses should these young “executives” take, and who should advise them about the valuable concepts they must grasp before they transfer to another school (with a better collective) or sign with a more elite pro league?
Let’s be clear, this is not a discussion about the dark side of NIL. It’s actually the spotlight-bright side of NIL, where today’s athletes, despite not yet having turned 21, must turn on the jets and make as much as they can.
Logically, these college athletes, who now have taxes to pay, portfolios to monitor and investments to make, are already dealing with agents and clever marketing firms. In some cases, the athlete is already building out an employee base to manage personal appearances or a newly formed foundation.
That raises the question of whether universities should be looking at their athletes as desirable candidates for executive education programs. Why? The most elite NCAA athletes are no longer traditional students. They may only play at the current school for one to two years before turning pro or transferring.
To that end, forward-thinking universities would better serve these young professionals by providing courses that are immediately relevant. Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer this select group classes in, say, entrepreneurship, marketing, management and public relations, or nutrition and exercise science?
Or will the university look with disdain upon this unique student population because the residential academy can’t cater to exceptions, can’t customize for the very successful individual?
However it plays out, Power Five universities should remember this: If we teach our successful NIL student-athletes the subjects they need now, they might look favorably on us later (when we ask for alumni donations).
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. His new co-authored book Business the NHL Way (University of Toronto Press) is now available. He is also COO North America for the Australian sports tech firm Playbk Sports.