Ralph Nader, not generally known as a speaker on matters related to either athletics or higher education, apparently believes the United States should end the practice of giving out athletic scholarships.

According to an Associated Press piece at ESPN:

“As we near the exciting conclusion of ‘March Madness’ — which would more accurately be described as the 2011 NCAA Professional Basketball Championships — it’s time we step back and finally address the myth of amateurism surrounding big-time college football and basketball in this country,” said Nader, whose League of Fans is proposing that the scholarships be replaced with need-based financial aid.

Nader said that colleges should either integrate athletics into the educational mission by eliminating college scholarships, or, “openly acknowledge the professionalism in big-time college sports, remove the tax-exempt status currently given to athletic departments, and make universities operate them as unrelated businesses.”

Frankly, he’s probably right. The time and energy required to successfully play Division I sports means that most college athletes study only incidentally.

But the importance of college sports, to alumni, fans, and college bank accounts, is such that any serious reform of the financial system surrounding college athletics is quite difficult. An NCAA spokesman, for instance, immediately said that athletes aren’t really professionals: “They are students, just like any other student on campus who receives a merit-based scholarship.”

Well, perhaps technically, though most students with merit-based scholarships are at college only to study. Whereas athletes are at school to not study, or not study very much. Any serious learning, after all, would probably detract from serious performance.

Another gigantic barrier to reform may be high cost of college itself. With total costs at the average public college now topping off at $15,213 a year, everyone’s looking for a deal that will cut those costs down. Athletic scholarships, or the promise of athletic scholarships, offer one of the few opportunities for families to make truly college affordable.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer