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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Big-Time Schools are Barcoding Student Athletes

First, kudos to Sports Illustrated. Some of us wondered who they'd find to write columns inside the back cover after Rick Reilly departed for the glitz of self-congratulatory ESPN. Well, they've actually improved the species, even though Reilly is very good. Former New York Times sports reporter (okay, so writing sports for the Times is like being on the Zimbabwean national hoops team) Selena Roberts and SI veteran Chris Ballard have written some terrific columns, with Roberts' being the most recent one.

Basically, big-time football schools (her example is Tennessee) have swipe cards that their student athletes must use to track their movements, say from the athletic dorm to classes to study hall to the weight room. Isn't that just great?

Who benefits here?

The coaches? Are the kids chattel? Cattle? Lambs to the slaughter? Are the coaches protecting the schools' investment despite the fact that some of the kids aren't encouraged to study anything meaningful and are kept eligible for the glory of the school and its bragging rights? Are they simply making sure that the kids don't stray, that they do their homework (even if it's in Basic Football Theory or some other such nonsense)? Is that it?

Or, do the kids benefit? That would be because the schools want to make sure that each student-athlete really is a student first, that he goes to class, gets the help he needs, progresses toward a meaningful degree should he not become a lottery pick? Is this what's happening? Is this just an extra perk of being an elite football player -- that someone cares so much for your developing your intellect?

All most kids know in high school is that they have to win a scholarship. The elite ones become elite because they focus on one major thing -- athletic excellence. Were they to focus on other things and be better-rounded they might not achieve their excellence on the gridiron because they'd have other things to fall back on and might not need the sport as much. I'm not sitting in judgment of that. But, many kids don't know what they're supposed to demand and expect once they get the scholarship. Progress toward a meaningful degree that will help them get a good job? Some skills that will help them do that job well? No, many just know that they next step on the ladder to the NFL is getting that scholarship and playing at a BCS school.

Which means, probably, that they're not asking the right questions. I'd also submit that they aren't specifically told that they're getting Lojacked while their academic careers could be getting hijacked, because coaches who win stay and coaches who lose -- despite classroom excellence -- get put into the "nice guys don't win" category. Would you want your kid to be barcoded? Would you want your kid not to be able to go to a lecture about solving Fermat's theorem, about how physics affects daily life, about libertarian politics? Or how about just having a Frappucino with a nice girl, talking about a novel they were reading in English class? Instead of having a position coach or graduate assistant play secret police and watch the kid's every move.

Aren't these kids supposed to be on their way to adulthood? Aren't some of them future leaders? Can't we trust them to do the right thing?

This development is so strange that it deserves questioning at best and ridicule at worst. Barcoding student athletes?

What's next, cloning them?


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