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Originally published April 23, 2014 at 5:16 PM | Page modified April 24, 2014 at 9:24 AM

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Guest: Mark Emmert on NCAA athletes unionizing

Converting student-athletes into unionized employees throws the baby out with the bath water, writes News Tribune guest columnist Mark Emmert.

Special to The News Tribune

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MANY improvements must be made in college athletics.

But, while change must occur, it needs to be done so that it also preserves what is working well in college sports. Converting student-athletes into unionized employees throws the baby out with the bath water.

First, what works and should be preserved: Today, 460,000 college students play NCAA sports each year while working on their college degrees. The few thousand student-athletes we see on TV playing football and basketball represent a very small fraction of the total number of NCAA student-athletes.

In total, more than $2.7 billion of scholarship money is given annually to student-athletes across the nation, making NCAA athletics one of the largest sources nationally of financial aid to college students. That financial support allows thousands of students to attend college who would not be able to do so otherwise. Today, access to college is a critical, life-changing experience. Collegiate athletics is an important way to provide that access.

But, in terms of what is most important for intercollegiate athletics, NCAA student-athletes are performing extremely well in the classroom. Graduation rates for student-athletes exceed those of their non-athlete counterparts, and more than 80 percent of NCAA student-athletes earn bachelor’s degrees, well ahead of the national average for college students overall. Whatever improvements we make to college sports, we cannot diminish this record of success for so many young men and women.

What needs to change? NCAA member schools continue to work on the best ways to support student-athletes so they can succeed in the classroom, on the field and in life. There are certainly many opinions on how to get this done, but my hope is we can address the following issues:

Student-athletes need a larger role in the decision-making process. Many people don’t realize that student-athletes already provide input on decisions on their campuses, in their conferences and at the national level. More can be done to make sure they have both a voice and a vote on important issues.

Athletic scholarships should cover the full cost of attending college — not just tuition, housing, meals and books. Moreover, these scholarships should be granted for the full time needed to finish a bachelor’s degree, not just a fixed period of time.

Sports-related time demands need to be reduced, so student-athletes can participate in the full educational experience while at college. This could include opportunities such as studying abroad and internships.

Through playing rules and best practices, the health and well-being of student-athletes must continue to be a priority for the NCAA and all its member schools. Where more research is needed, such as in understanding concussions, the NCAA must continue to lead the way.

Health insurance programs and medical care, already much stronger than people realize, should be improved.

Families of student-athletes with financial need should be provided assistance to travel to campus for recruiting visits or to championships or bowl games so they can see their sons and daughters compete.

The NCAA membership has already taken a number of steps in the right direction. For example, all Division I student-athletes now can receive unlimited meals and snacks in addition to the three meals a day or food stipends they normally receive. Further, schools can offer multiyear athletics scholarships and commit to providing opportunities for student-athletes to come back and finish their degrees after their playing days are over.

But more change is needed — and it must come from within. Unlike professional sports leagues, the NCAA actually is an association of 1,100 universities and colleges that together make all the decisions about rules and policies. This democratic process isn’t always as fast as many would like. But over the decades, it has resulted in a model of college athletics that has served millions of student-athletes very well, and it will continue to do so. As I look to the future, I am excited for the possibilities as we clear a wider path to student-athlete success.

Mark Emmert is the president of the NCAA and former president of the University of Washington. He wrote this for The News Tribune in Tacoma.

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