HILL: What to do about college athletics

Going to college to get a free education plus room and board for four years is a good deal for almost every college athlete.

Coach Wallace Wade on the sidelines at Duke | Photo courtesy Duke Athletics

Big-time college athletics is out of control. But should universities lose their historical mission to educate young people as a result?

College athletics, primarily football, has been a lucrative way to make money for the school and get publicity for the university.

Wallace Wade was head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1920s and led them to three national titles in three Rose Bowls. He started the Alabama dominance of college football.

Duke University Chancellor Preston Few was looking to bring much-needed publicity to the new campus that opened its doors in Durham in 1924. The Alabama program under Coach Wade was doing pretty well, so Few contacted Wade for his suggestions for a new head coach.

Coach Wade surprised everyone, including Chancellor Few, by saying he was interested in the job under the following conditions: he wanted to be head football coach, athletic director and intramural program director since he believed in using athletics to build men out of boys.

He got all three plus a generous salary during the Depression and a cut of the gate receipts. When he filled up Duke Stadium with 50,000 spectators to watch the Blue Devils play national powers such as Pittsburgh and go to two Rose Bowls, Duke University got the nationwide publicity Chancellor Few wanted, and Coach Wade went to the Hall of Fame.

Coach Wade and universities offered athletes a free education with room and board which they could use to become doctors, lawyers or businessmen if they went to class, did their homework and did well on exams.

Which is the original purpose of higher education in the first place, right?

Back then, the allure of pro sports was not what it is today. College football players drafted in 1939 got paid $100 per game to play against older men who had other jobs to make ends meet during the year.

Today, an elite athlete could make tens of millions of dollars if they leave school after one year of college basketball or three years of college football.

However, such lucrative contracts are only given to approximately 1.5 percent of all college football or basketball players. One out of every 1,860, or 0.054 percent, high school basketball players ever make it to the pros.

Going to college to get a free education plus room and board for four years is a good deal for almost every college athlete who plays football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse or soccer.

Especially benchwarmers.

The NCAA should consider the following proposal which is based one thing on which all Americans can agree:

Freedom to choose.

Any player has four years of playing eligibility at any college from high school graduation. If they get cut from the pros after one year, they have three years of eligibility remaining; after two years, two years of eligibility remaining and so on. They can be recruited by any college at any time from the NBA to the G League to the Turkish league overseas.

If the goal of higher education is to give young players a great education in return for entertaining the rest of us who wished we could play basketball at their superior level, there should be no barriers to entry to any college if they flame out in the pros.

Coach Wade used to tell every prospect he recruited: “Duke University is going to do more for you over the course of your lifetime than you will ever do for Duke on the football field, young man. Take advantage of this marvelous gift of an education.”

Why not heed that same advice in the 21st century?