Here’s something you might not have known about college athletics: schools don’t offer student-athletes multi-year scholarships. Every athletic scholarship is good for only one year and can be renewed three times — or not renewed, at the behest of a head coach or athletic director.
The NCAA instituted this policy in the early 1970s and only recently rescinded it, very quietly. Why did this become policy? As Dave Meggyesy told Patrick Hruby last year, it was to prevent athletes from starting any reform efforts.
“You know why they do one-year renewable scholarships? Because back in the early 1970s, the shit was hitting the fan. There were a number of athlete protests, including Syracuse, Oregon and Washington, black athlete protests following [Tommy] Smith and [John] Carlos raising their fists at the  Olympics. One of the responses for the NCAA was to change the four-year grant-in-aid to a one-year renewable, to give the coaches a hammer over any scholarship ballplayer who would think about acting out. It was just a measure of control.”
Of course, now that schools are capable of offering multi-year scholarships, they still won’t. In fact, they don’t even bother to tell student-athletes that multi-year scholarships are even an option, preferring to keep the talent on a short leash. Christine Plonsky, the women’s athletic director at the University of Texas, responded to one article about this topic by publicly asking, “Who gets a four-year, $120K deal guaranteed at age 17?”
Christine Plonsky has probably never heard of Theo Walcott, whose contract Arsenal bought from Southampton in January 2006 for an initial £5 million fee that eventually grew to £9.1 million. Walcott was still 16 years old when Arsenal signed him.
Read any of Patrick Hruby’s Laboratories of Hypocrisy articles on Sports on Earth — you’ll find the first two here and here — and you’ll soon discover how hard the NCAA and its member schools fight to squash that sort of free market for young athletes. The issues go well beyond paying athletes their fair market value. Many athletes who suffer injuries while playing soon discover that the schools don’t bother to cover the medical bills. This Meghan Walsh piece for The Atlantic leads with this interesting fact:
The National Collegiate Athletics Association Division I manual includes more than 400 pages of mandates for its member schools.
But there is less than a page regarding healthcare for athletes.
Instead, there’s a half-page list of healthcare services that institutions may finance should they choose. Athletic departments (with the exception of those in California, where specific legislation has been passed) don’t have to publish their healthcare policies in writing, leaving players to rely solely on the promises of recruiters.
In other words, after an incoming student signs a letter of intent binding him or her to a university, many schools have no contractual obligation to treat injuries or strains that result from playing for that college.
On top of that, schools also have no contractual obligation to pay an athlete’s medical bills, and there’s no provision preventing schools from revoking a player’s scholarship after he gets hurt. Louisville might cover Kevin Ware’s medical bills, of course, but only because he broke his leg so publicly. Had that gruesome injury happened in an untelevised November game against Fordham, Ware’s situation might have ended up looking a lot like Stanley Doughty’s.
The number of voices calling for reform in college sports is growing. How does the NCAA respond to those calls? By opening talks with schools to create a new football subdivision for the five major conferences — presumably to make those schools even more money.
Here are a few reasons why the NCAA and the major conferences can ignore calls for reform:
- In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to broadcast the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
- Last November, ESPN signed a 12-year, $5.64 billion deal to cover the new College Football Playoff.
- Next season, the five major conferences — the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the SEC — will receive a combined $1.2 billion in rights fees from major networks. Most of those contracts last well into the next decade.
The bottom line is the bottom line. As long as those billions continue to pour into athletic department coffers, colleges have zero incentive to reform college sports. They are free to presume the system as it is must be working, because it’s making so much money.
Do fans care about reforming college sports? As long as enough of them stay tuned, does it matter? College football ratings remain high, and ratings for the NCAA Tournament have trended upward over the last five years. Who cares if the talent doesn’t get paid and often gets mistreated by coaches, medical staff, and athletic departments? People are watching the games. That’s all that matters, right?
Here’s the catch. The highest-rated football game on cable TV — South Carolina v. LSU on ESPN — was viewed by an estimated 6 million people. Roughly 100 million people get ESPN. That means 94 million people paid for that game without watching it. Yes, some of those 94 million watch ESPN for something other than college sports. How many of them never turn on ESPN, and how many of those people realize they’re still paying for a college athletics system that chews kids up and spits them out on a regular basis? How many realize that this is what they’re paying for?
College sports has a rich history and tradition in this country, but the NCAA has built a monster on the back of all that history and tradition. Cable television helps to feed this monster. Because we give our money to ESPN, Fox Sports, and Turner Sports, the NCAA can afford not to change their rules. Until something comes along to derail this gravy train, student-athletes will continue to be exploited, and big-time college sports will continue to reap the benefits of not only our fandom, but our ignorance.