COLUMN: Thursday games jeopardize the ‘student’ in ‘student-athlete’

First and foremost that the participants in college athletics have to be full-time students at their universities participating in sport, and second that they be amateurs, that they not be professionals,” Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, declared last year as he testified in the Ed O’Bannon trial. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal he further argued, “Increasing the academic preparation of freshmen and transfers, holding teams and coaches responsible for academic success, and requiring academic eligibility standards for post-season competition will promote real academic success.”

In order to underscore and support that belief, the NCAA went ahead and scheduled Thursday night games in college football. On Thursday, USC will take on the University of Washington Huskies at the Coliseum at 6 p.m. That’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday night in the middle of the fall semester when students have midterm exams, homework and a plethora of other activities that fill up a typical week. I personally do not even get out of class until 6 p.m. on Thursday.

The first obvious question is why would the NCAA and the Pac-12 schedule on a weekday a football game that is typically played on a Saturday? For that answer, look no further than the $3 billion deal the Pac-12 signed with the ESPN and Fox to broadcast games. A clause in the deal gives full autonomy to providers to choose programming. Sports networks are trying to piggy-back off the success of Thursday night football in the NFL with the inclusion of some Thursday night college football games.

While that means big bucks and opportunities for cable, advertisers and television, it hurts the one party that perhaps matters the most — the student-athletes themselves. For them, it is already difficult to balance academics and athletics. Add on a game — not a practice, but a game during the week — and the concept of student-athletes being “students first,” goes out the door.

I have a French quiz in class from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday. Say there was a football player in my class or there was a player who had class during that time. It is troubling to think the team, university and conference would ask them to play in a prime-time football game rather than attend class — and then not receive any compensation from the millions of dollars of profit from the whole spectacle.

At least USC student-athletes will be playing at home. Washington players have to travel and potentially miss more class time. And our rivals across town arguably have it worse. UCLA has this week off, but then undergoes two consecutive weeks with a Thursday game, first taking on the Cardinal at Stanford and then hosting Cal in Pasadena the following week. That entails earlier practices in the week, more travel and added stress to student-athletes as they juggle grueling Pac-12 matchups and classes that are starting to gain steam.

Furthermore, the NCAA and college football hold dear the process of honoring and maintaining tradition. Schools like USC, Notre Dame and Ohio State play more on national TV and recruit the best players partially because of the storied history of their programs and the traditions passed on from generation to generation. Typically, fans of all ages gather together and tailgate to support their team before games. On Thursdays, there are no tailgates, at least on campus, in order to respect the academic setting and environment. In today’s world of college football, Thursday games have become somewhat common, but it is relatively new to the pantheon of college football history. In truth, it’s a budding practice that has no real place.  

If Emmert, the Pac-12 and the rest of the NCAA were truly concerned for the academic success of their beloved student-athletes, then any talk of Thursday games would be out of the question. There is no redeeming academic quality to a weekday game, and when the game is televised on ESPN on prime-time that it becomes clear financial incentives take precedent over player welfare and academic concerns.

We’re playing against the University of Washington on the field, not George Washington on the dollar bill. For the sake of putting students first and not the dollar, let’s stop Thursday games.