Courting Trouble: The Co-op Trap

Because of co-op, basketball legend Oscar Robertson found himself fair game for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.   

Robertson began playing for the UC Bearcat varsity in his sophomore year, 1957-58.  That same year, he began co-opping for the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. – passing between academic and work terms just like any other student.

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.

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“I wanted to co-op because of the inspiration provided by my teachers at Crispus Attucks High School.  They prepared you for challenges and really encouraged you to experience life, try different avenues to find out what you wanted to do with your life,” he says, adding, “But I didn’t continue with co-op” because of the warning whistles sounded by the NCAA.

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.’”

Return to main page of "Co-op Special Report."
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