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Is this the right time for rights?


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I’m sure college athletic administrators all over the country are wringing their hands and trying to decide what to do.

They’ve got a mess on their hands, one that has been brewing for quite some time.

Besides lawsuits that student-athletes have been filing to protect their right to earn money for the use of their image in various business endeavors, a group of Northwestern football players were given the right to form the College Athletes Players Association.

The bottom line is that a solid percentage of college athletes feel they should be getting more financial benefits to participate, and people are beginning to listen.

Earlier this week the Big Ten outlined ways that it would make the lives of its student-athletes better and then Friday Indiana University Director of Athletics Fred Glass unveiled the university’s “student-athlete bill of rights.”

Now a cynical person might ask “why now?”

It would appear that administrators are trying to ward off more lawsuits and attempts to unionize, as opposed to genuinely caring about student-athletes. If players are allowed to unionize, then they become employees of the university and the face of college athletics changes forever.

If conditions for student-athletes change dramatically over the next, let’s say, year, then maybe the whole union argument will go away. The zoo animals aren’t about to mount an attack if they are well fed.

I guess the question now becomes, “Are such moves, such as the Indiana ‘Bill of Rights’ a knee-jerk reaction as opposed to a well-thought-out solution?”

In 2013, USA Today released an analysis that reported 23 of the 228 athletic departments in the study managed to generate enough money to cover its expenses. Only seven of those schools took no subsidy money from the university or the government. One of those, by the way, was Purdue.

From 2005 to 2009, USA Today also released a study that said only eight of those athletics programs broke even or made money.

It’s not a new story. In 2010, the NCAA released a report that said only 22 of the 120 athletics programs that had Division I football, made money in terms of generating more money than they spent.

The good news for all these programs is people love sports. That means a lot of donations come into universities in various forms to help their athletics programs stay afloat.

Even so, studies indicate many universities’ athletics departments are relying heavily on student fees and subsidies from the university. This comes at a time when there is a general alarm about tuition costs.

So when I read some of the points in IU’s student-athlete Bill of Rights, I wonder who is going to pay the tab.

Glass certainly is proud of his “Lifetime Degree Guarantee,” which will pay undergraduate fees for any athlete who leaves the university early because of a family emergency or to pursue a professional athletic career.

I understand the thinking. Scholarships are handed out on an annual basis in theory, although most athletes are allowed to keep their scholarships throughout their undergraduate years as long as they don’t commit any kind of transgression.

I say most because, sure, there are cases where athletes are driven away from a program so a coach can offer that scholarship money to new blood.

This new line of thinking might sound noble, but I think the program that is in place is effective. I applaud handing high school students a scholarship for their entire undergraduate term, but paying an athlete to become pro to return and finish his/her education is not only silly, but fiscally irresponsible.

Just as a university has a responsibility to the student-athlete, so does the student-athlete to the university. If he/she doesn’t live up to that responsibility, for any reason other than an injury caused by participation in the sport, then the scholarship money should cease.

And while it makes sense to protect athletes better from a health, safety and wellness standpoint, other items in the Bill of Rights seem like they ultimately will produce a financial hardship on the university that somebody must pay for.

I hope this all is a sincere gesture to make conditions better. However, it’s hard not to consider some of these moves a common political tactic. Announce sweeping changes without any idea how the tab will be paid.

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.

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