There’s nothing new or revelatory about the fact that athletes in big-time college sports are valued primarily for their playing abilities and that academics often take a backseat to games and practices. But it’s still a bit heartbreaking to hear a story like the one former Purdue safety Albert Evans shared this week on Boilermakers blog Hammer & Rails.
In a fairly lengthy essay about his college experience, Evans revealed that entering college he wished to pursue a degree in either engineering or athletic training but that the Purdue athletic department told him neither major would fit into his football schedule. In the end, Evans wound up opting for a third choice, health and fitness.
When I was 10 years old, I wrote an article for the local newspaper that asked me what school I wanted to go to and what I wanted to study. I said Purdue University in their school of Engineering. I didn’t know that one day I would actually be able to attend Purdue on an athletic scholarship. But I wouldn’t be able to go for Engineering. Neither would I be able to go for Athletic Training, my second choice, which I wanted to use to create a path into Physical Therapy School. I was told that the Engineering caseload and class schedule would not work, especially if I had dreams of playing. I was told I would not be able to receive my hours for Athletic Training because they were mostly during football season and spring practice. At that point, I was on my third choice which wasn’t even a choice.
I was literally just there to play football. Having two choices of my own was more than a lot of my teammates and friends at other schools could say as they were left undecided and thrown into General Studies, Communications or Organizational Leadership and Supervision. So while those on the outside are complaining of paying for school because that’s something they value, imagine getting something for free that you aren’t just not interested in, but also something you don’t really know what to do with it.
Evans’ experience, as he tells it, was similar to the one former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter described while attempting to unionize the Wildcats’ football team. At an NLRB hearing in Chicago back in 2014, Colter explained that he had hoped to follow a pre-med track but that football practices had prevented him from enrolling in the necessary chemistry classes. Colter used that experience to argue that football players at Northwestern, and other big-time programs, are employees more than they are students.
Evans’ piece for Hammer & Rails went beyond his experience choosing a major. The former Boilermakers starter describes a schedule packed with football, questions the value of a diploma without a true education and wonders “Was my mind and body worth a free degree?”
He also muses about the meaning of “amateurism” and recalls the unfairness of seeing his face on billboards while knowing he wouldn’t be compensated.
I hear the term “amateurism” thrown around often. Are you really amateurs when grown men, women, and children can purchase and wear your jerseys? At one point in college, I was on billboards from Monticello, Indiana to South Indianapolis. I was on local street signs, the football facility, TV commercials, and radio spots. I asked one day, why me? We have guys on this team who are top draft picks. They responded, you’re marketable. You play with a chip on your shoulder. You have good grades. You’re from the state. You have a fan base within the state. We wanted somebody who can be related to by our fan base and state.
So while I was excited just to call my parents and show them the new billboards, I wasn’t really aware that I was being sold. I wasn’t really aware that all the autographs we signed at marketing events and after games wasn’t just us selling the program but ourselves. In the summer, we signed a stack of compliance forms and some of them were giving the rights for the school and conference to use you for marketing purposes. Sometimes guys wouldn’t sign and they would bring you back in and force you to sign it or you couldn’t play. You were forced to be a part of the system.
In the end, Evans admits he doesn’t have any easy solution to the issues he outlines. But it’s not his job, as a former player, to come up with solutions. As players like Evans share their experiences, it falls to coaches, athletic departments, conferences and, above all, the NCAA to make college sports more fair to the players involved.