Because of co-op, basketball legend Oscar Robertson found himself fair game for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Only Robertson wasn’t just any other student. He was arguably the greatest all-around player in basketball history, also standing tall as a barrier-breaker. As such, Robertson recalls that he was bulls-eye visible, and the NCAA – the governing body for college sports – noted his co-op career and almost elbowed Robertson off the court because of it.
In 1958, the NCAA was examining co-op and athletics at colleges around the country, and the organization basically charged that if Robertson was in the workplace rather than the classroom every day, he wasn’t a student; and therefore, ineligible to play the game. Then UC President Walter Langsam quickly countered that co-op was integral to education at UC: First, it was a requirement to graduate. Second, students were actually enrolled while on co-op, and their work reviews routinely came back to the university for oversight and a co-op “grade.”
Then the wrangling began, and the NCAA took about a year to reach a decision that, yes, co-op could be properly characterized as education. But, the decision came too late for Robertson.
Recalls Robertson, “Coach [George] Smith came to me one day and said that I wasn’t in the [co-op] program anymore. What could I say?...There was nothing to say, so I said, ‘O.K.’”