This year’s National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament is likely to be remembered not only for a championship game in which both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket, but also for the extraordinary media coverage it attracted to the issue of whether big-time college athletes should be paid. Special shows on PBS and other networks about paying college athletes were promoted as aggressively as the games themselves.
Even the consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, a relative newcomer to this debate, was able to use the media frenzy to launch his own proposal to eliminate athletic scholarships altogether. The tepid to hostile reaction his proposal brough in many circles, including at the NCAA, indicates how far big-time college athletics has drifted from its amateur moorings.
Few people realize that throughout the first half of the 20th century, the NCAA remained steadfast in its opposition to athletic scholarships. Not only did such payments violate amateurism, the NCAA argued, but they might attract athletes with little interest in getting a college education. Like Nader, the NCAA supported need-based financial aid for all low-income students, including college athletes.
Because the NCAA had no enforcement power during those early years, its amateur rules were violated with impunity. Athletic scholarships were introduced in 1956 with the hope that openly paying the room, board, tuition and fees of athletes would put an end to under-the-table payments. Walter Byers, head of the NCAA at the time, later called athletic scholarships “a nationwide money-laundering scheme” that funnels under-the-table payments through the university’s financial aid office.
When judged primarily on educational grounds, Nader’s defense of need-based aid for athletes in big-time college sports places him at the head of the class as a defender of academic integrity in collegiate sport and of time-honored amateur principles the NCAA claims to defend. On this issue, as with many others he has addressed over the years, Nader stands virtually alone.
Yet there is another side to the athletic scholarship story. In the 1960s, an athlete could be awarded a four-year scholarship that could not be canceled or reduced if he or she were injured in sports or ended up being a “recruiting mistake.” Coaches could make this commitment in writing. Four-year scholarships sent out a strong message that the NCAA was committed to athletes as students, not merely as commodities in a labor market.
In 1973, the NCAA replaced four-year scholarships with scholarships renewed on a year-to-year basis. Current rules allow schools to cancel or reduce an award at the end of a year “for almost any reason,” giving coaches control over the daily lives of athletes that would be unimaginable in any other extracurricular activity. In other words, the basketball players who keep millions of dollars flowing into the “Big Dance” are not unlike paid employees who can be fired at will.
Given America’s love affair with big-time college sports, it is hard to conceive how Ralph Nader, no matter how well-intentioned, will convert athletic programs such as those in the Football Bowl Subdivision over to the Division III, non-scholarship model. A plausible alternative is to focus resources on restoring multi-year athletic scholarships that cannot be reduced or canceled because of injury or insufficient athletic ability.
This approach would fall short of restoring amateurism, but it would restore athletes’ status as students rather than as university employees. Legal definitions of employment specify that to be an employee, a worker must not only engage in an employer’s business, a condition easily met by athletes who generate millions for their schools, but also be able to be fired. If scholarships were renewed on the basis of academic progress rather than athletic performance, they would be educational gifts, not contacts for hire.
Last year, Joseph Agnew, a former Rice University football player, filed a class action against the NCAA after his scholarship was revoked in his junior year. Agnew’s poor athletic performance, coupled with multiple injuries, led Rice to cancel his aid. Agnew argues that the NCAA has violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by not letting athletes bargain for multi-year scholarships. It is ironic and very sad that Agnew must go to court to restore an academic benefit that athletes took for granted 40 years ago.
Ralph Nader’s proposal for replacing athletic scholarships with need-based financial aid is unlikely to gain support among athletes who feel financially exploited in the current system or women who have only recently gotten a seat at the scholarship table. A court victory for Agnew, however, could be a huge victory for athletes and academics alike. Nader and his League of Fans should consider broadening their proposal to include multi-year scholarships. This modest proposal, in conjunction with reforms such as freshman ineligibility for athletes admitted outside their institutions’ normal admissions process, would go a long way toward helping to maintain athletes as an integral part of the student body.
Allen L. Sack is a professor in the college of management at the University of New Haven and president-elect of the Drake Group, a faculty organization committed to academic integrity in collegiate athletics.
From the opening kickoff of the upcoming college football season to the end of March Madness, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will use its substantial public relations resources to defend the view that big-time college athletes are amateurs. The NCAA clings to this position despite the fact that big-time college sports are highly commercialized, and one-year-renewable scholarships, which allow colleges to get rid of an underperforming player at the drop of a hat, give revenue sports a distinctively professional feel. There may be a practical way to put the amateur myth to rest while at the same time reaffirming the primacy of education in athletes’ lives.
Several years ago I interviewed the NCAA’s president, Myles Brand, for a book I was writing (Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete’s Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism, Penn State Press, 2008). During the interview, in 2006, Brand responded to my questions with intellectual insight and analytic precision consistent with his background as a former philosophy professor. Because he chooses words carefully, I was not totally surprised when he suggested that “the term amateur may have outlived its usefulness.”
"The term,” he said, “was not a very good fit for college sports in the new millennium.”
“If the term is not a good fit,” I asked, “why not just delete it from the NCAA Manual? What would happen if you just dropped the term?”
Brand responded, partially in jest, “We can define a new term. We are always good at defining new terms here at the NCAA.”
“Would dropping the term have legal consequences?” I asked.
“It might,” he said. “I don’t know.”
I agree with Brand that the term amateur is not a good fit for modern college sports, but it has definitely not outlived it usefulness for the NCAA. The myth of amateurism shields college sport from tax collectors and members of Congress, seeking unrelated business income taxes, and allows the NCAA to cap athletic subsidies at room, board, tuition and fees. The NCAA will probably play the “amateurism card” to fight a class action lawsuit filed this summer over its use of former athletes’ likenesses to sell licensed products.
So what can the NCAA do to end the pretense that big-time college athletes are amateurs, short of abandoning athletic scholarships or openly turning pro? The first step is to take Brand’s “off the cuff” suggestion seriously and drop the term amateur when referring to scholarship athletes.
The next step would be to adopt a model that continues the practice of awarding athletic scholarships to the nation’s most talented athletes, but eliminates conditions generally associated with employment. Borrowing a term from Myles Brand, I would call this the “collegiate model.”
Under current NCAA rules, athletes who fail to meet athletic expectations can lose their athletic scholarships, i.e., be “fired” at the end of the year, thus transforming athletic scholarships into contracts for hire. And because athletes are subject to their coaches’ control in return for payment of room, board, tuition and fees, they arguably meet common law definitions of employees. The collegiate model, on the other hand, would make satisfactory progress in the classroom the condition for renewing athletic scholarships.
By transforming athletic scholarships from employment contracts into educational gifts, universities would demonstrate their commitment to athletes as students, regardless of their performance on the court or athletic field. This is precisely the kind of scholarship I had when I played football for the University of Notre Dame in the 1960s. Even though I was a borderline recruiting mistake, the coaching staff was stuck with me for four years, and had to make me the best athlete I could be. I was a student, not a commodity to be traded to meet market needs.
In addition to adopting multiyear scholarships, the collegiate model would require athletes who are “special admits” – those enrolled outside the institution’s regular admissions process -- to sit out their freshman year to prove they have what it takes to succeed academically. All athletes would have to maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 to stay eligible for sports and would be given one semester to raise their GPAs if they fell below that level. Failure to do so would mean the withdrawal of financial aid. Current NCAA rules regarding academic progress, tied to the association’s Academic Progress Rate system, would remain in place. At colleges that do not already have a 2.0 requirement, this would slightly raise the APR requirement for freshmen and sophomores.
Reforms such as these would sharpen the line of demarcation between collegiate and professional sports, thus allowing the NCAA to honestly state that big-time college athletes are neither amateurs, a term that would still apply in schools that offer need-based financial aid, or professional entertainers.
The collegiate model would focus on making athletes well-educated citizens, keep fans happy, strengthen the argument that big-time college sport fulfills its tax exempt educational function, and silence those who argue that college athletes are employees.
Finally, the amateur myth would be laid to rest.
Allen Sack, a professor in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, played on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is author of Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete’s Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism.
The decline of the football program at the University of Notre Dame, where I played in the 1960s, has been consistent fodder on sports radio and fan Web sites in recent months. But the situation has implications that extend far beyond the concerns of the university’s loyal alumni and other Fighting Irish fanatics – and I propose that Notre Dame deal with it in a way that could make it a national leader in intercollegiate athletics reform.
One explanation for Notre Dame’s football meltdown since the mid-1990s -- the one I find most compelling -- is that it reflects major and irreversible changes in the college football landscape, some of which Notre Dame helped to initiate. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s monopoly control of the sale of football broadcasts to television networks, thus allowing individual schools to negotiate their own TV deals.
The Irish, who led the charge for free enterprise in college sports, undoubtedly benefited from this decision. But so too did scores of other schools -- including upstarts like Boise State, Hawaii, and South Florida -- whose increased television exposure allows them to recruit head-to-head with the traditional powers like Notre Dame. NCAA limits on the number of football scholarships and the increase in blue chip players coming out of high school have also created greater parity within the Bowl Championship Subdivision, which features the bigger football playing universities.
As the stunning number of upset victories during the 2007 football season made clear, Notre Dame is not the only traditional powerhouse struggling to keep up with the flood of new entrants and rising stars that now compete for college football’s pot of gold. But academically competitive institutions like Notre Dame have the added disadvantage that their admissions standards far exceed the freshman eligibility requirements recently adopted by the NCAA.
In 1986, the NCAA responded to reports of functional illiteracy among college athletes by passing a rule known as Proposition 48. Over the years, Proposition 48 has gone through a number of revisions, each one further watering down the test score component. Today an athlete with a combined SAT score of 400 -- the lowest score possible -- can compete and receive athletic aid as a freshman if a high grade point average in high school offsets the low test score.
Notre Dame, like every other football power, lowers its admissions standards for athletes. But even though the SAT average for Notre Dame football players -- about 1048 -- falls about 300 points below the average for the student body, it soars above the NCAA minimum. Stellar running backs with a combined SAT score of 600 and a B average in high school would be fair game for many other colleges. Academically competitive universities like Notre Dame, Stanford and Duke would be unlikely to consider them.
To try to get the Fighting Irish football program back up to a nationally competitive level, Notre Dame is at a crossroads. It can either continue to fish in a smaller recruiting pond than some of its competitors, thus continuing the slide into football mediocrity. Or it can find a creative way to go deeper into the college football talent pool, while at the same time preserving the university’s academic integrity. Although this latter approach would require courageous and visionary leadership, the model for getting it done already exists.
I propose the following. Using NCAA minimum standards, Notre Dame could offer scholarships to athletes who are academically at risk, including highly motivated students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. But these athletes would be barred from practicing, attending film sessions, and playing in games during their first semester in college unless they score at least a 900 on the SATs (or an equivalent ACT score) and graduate from high school with a 3.0 grade point average. They would then need at least a 2.0 to practice in the spring semester.
By putting athletes with academic deficiencies through a one-year academic boot camp, and guaranteeing them a fifth year of scholarship aid, Notre Dame could demonstrate its commitment to them as students and as athletes. If a similar model were adopted by like-minded schools, it could provide the philosophical foundation for a new conference, or at the very least ensure that athletes not only meet the NCAA’s APR requirements but get a real education as well.
The strength of this proposal -- and what would make it a good model for all universities to follow -- is that while it is grounded in the same logic as current NCAA initial eligibility requirements, it allows each university or conference to raise the freshman eligibility bar to fit its academic mission and student profile. Most importantly, implementation does not require a vote by the NCAA. If Notre Dame takes the lead, other schools might follow.
It is obvious that top ranking academic institutions like Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, UC Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, and USC have to ease up on admissions policies for athletes if they want to compete in the hyper-commercialized, free-market industry college football has become. But it is educationally and morally unconscionable to throw athletes who are academically at risk into this industry as freshmen.