Education or Exploitation?

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How much is an education truly worth?

Recently more and more questions are being asked about the education of young athletes. Gifted athletes often have their lives develop along with their sport and from a young age, many are pushed and forced into playing. For those with talent, there is no wrong in helping them achieve their dream or goal. However, sport is very demanding, any athlete will tell you about the hours and dedication it requires. Questions, therefore, must be asked of the costs and benefits of education through sport. Also, of how young players are treated in comparison to the worth they bring. Sometimes sporting institutions exploit young athletes’ situation or ambitions at the benefit of the institution.

U.S. colleges represent one of the major places of controversy in youth sport. College sports are an entire business within themselves with television coverage of student-athletes, huge profits to be made and massive stadiums. In fact, according to an article written by Chris Smith for Forbes in 2018, the top 25 American Football college teams are collectively worth around $2.5 billion. College incomes are built upon donations, sponsorships and brand sales. However, teams are not comprised of paid athletes, they are built upon student-athletes. Scholarship programs are designed to help identify high school talents transition smoothly into college. They often help those lacking the grades or the money, helping them pay for or enter a college they would not be able to enter otherwise. Scholarships reduce or remove fees to allow athletes of different backgrounds the chance to go to college. It is not hard to see the advantages this provides for the disadvantaged.

One way you can look at this is that it provides well-deserved opportunities for those who wouldn’t otherwise have any. Colleges allow athletes entry into their institutions while removing their fees, but this is a small fraction of their worth to the college. As shown before, the revenue generated by these colleges is enormous, yet athletes go unpaid. Also, as previously mentioned, the demands of sport are very high, often education is neglected as a result. For athletes that make it to a professional level, the wages are so high, there is a fair argument that college is worth it paid or not. However, there are many of those who don’t make it to the professional level. Young athletes dedicate their lives to pursuing a sport, and if they don’t make it, they end up with worse grades, fewer opportunities and no financial safety nets. Colleges in the U.S. own these young athletes’ brands; therefore, they cannot build a financial safety net in case they fail. Players names are used and sold as part of the colleges brand and generate huge revenues, many argue that this is so unfair it is almost exploitative. Just as many professional athletes find themselves stranded financially after their career, this situation is even worse, for there is no career in the first place. With the rise of social media and different models for wealth generation, the situation is improving for many young athletes who take their brand under their own control. Even with this, some changes should be made to this traditional route. Colleges should have to give a share of their brand revenue to players. As well as this, players should be given a financial support clause that supports players following their college career if they do not create a career out of the sport. Also, re-education and academic support post during and after their pro-career should be offered to help them find a different path.

In England, there is a similar situation with youth sport academies, the main focus being football, as its popularity is most prominent in the UK. Football academies throughout the country take on young athletes with great love and ambition for playing football, but only a few make a career of it. David Conn’s 2017 Guardian article ‘Football’s biggest issue’ highlights the struggles boys face when rejected by academies. This is a major issue. The article was written following the suicide of a young boy at the age of 16, the boy had sadly taken his own life after rejection from a Premier League youth academy. Although this is the extreme of the situation I am discussing, as Conn points out, there is a larger issue. There are around 12,000 boys in the youth system, all faced with very high demands and expectations. Intense and demanding programs take up youth players time and mental capacities, leaving no room for other things in their lives. Football becomes their whole existence. Therefore, when rejected from a club in favour of another player, or in some cases, more expensive, better-known players, they are lost. There must be fallbacks put in place for these young athletes. With respect, many school sports and academy-based youth programs come with education in other potential career paths in sport. However, a large problem remains.

With so much money in sport, more can be done to support these players. There is nothing wrong with education through sport, but there must be a method implemented to ensure that people are not left stranded. There must be psychological, educational and financial safety nets for those going through these sports programs. One may argue providing college athletes with a working wage would demean the purpose of an academic institution, but let’s not hold up false pretences that a large part of these sports programs is profit. A lot of this profit comes from low-risk high reward prospects. Young athletes are so eager and often so desperate they will put themselves through anything. Big sporting institutions have a constant supply from which they can pick talented and profitable players and disregard the rest of the bunch. This system must be changed, as it is skewed too far in favour of the major institutions, we must do more to hear the voices of those left behind in sport and not just those who are centre stage.

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