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Indiana University officials are justly proud of their newly unveiled plan to guarantee their athletes four-year scholarships and the ability to come back and finish their degree later in life. Scholarship athletes at IU will no longer have to fear that if their performance in their sport is deemed inadequate, their college career is over. That may be a first for a major institution.
The lifetime guarantee of eligibility to earn a degree almost certainly is, Emmett Gill, the national director for the Student Athlete Human Rights Project, told The Journal Gazette's Chris Goff. "Not only have they looked beyond one year," Gill said, "they've looked beyond four years. For student athletes, that's just tremendous."
The move can be seen as part of a sea change in the way colleges and universities are beginning to deal with their students who play sports. Other schools are likely to follow IU's lead.
If so, athletes will no longer have to live in fear of seeing their academic futures implode if a coach isn't happy with how they practiced on a particular day. Those coaches who have used the threat of a revoked scholarship to get more out of players in practice will have to find better motivational tools.
But IU's plan is not likely to be the final answer to the question of how colleges and universities that are making huge amounts of money off their athletic programs deal fairly with the student athletes who make that possible.
"It's a good thing," said Taylor Branch, whose 2011 Atlantic Magazine article "The Shame of College Sports" has been a seminal document in the reform effort. "I wrote myself that it's outrageous to have a one-year scholarship policy."
But in an interview Monday, Branch characterized Indiana's move as part of "a gathering storm for all major conferences. It's a strategic retreat."
"They're still," Branch said, "not addressing the questions of the rights of the athletes."
Branch says he believed in the "amateur athlete" college model when he began the research for the "Shame" article several years ago. But he now sees a fundamental contradiction between the convoluted rules under which college athletes live and the rules of the larger society. In most areas of endeavor, he said, people who are not adequately compensated are considered to be exploited. Under the rules of the NCAA, though, "it exploits athletes to have any connection with commerce."
Branch asked, "How would you justify depriving this class of people? You couldn't write a law to do that in the state legislature. It would be pre-Magna Carta."
In March, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University's athletes are employees and have the right to form a union. The full NLRB is reviewing the decision. But if it stands, Branch said, the order would collide with the entire structure of NCAA rules.
The Northwestern controversy "has caused a lot of people to take a second look at what the role of an athlete in a college is," Branch said.
"People do not think of college athletes as real citizens. You may cheer them. You may sneer at them as dumb jocks." But only recently have we begun to recognize the very arduous and unique circumstances those athletes cope with. "People don't feel an impulse to do it because they think they've already got glory to spare."
In fact, though most of us balance more than one role in life; the young men and women who try to balance athletics and scholarship in college are facing uniquely arduous challenges.
Hoosiers can be proud that IU is taking solid steps to deal with this emerging issue. No one, though, should believe the discussion is over.