An Arms Race

Big-time college sports programs are competing to offer more to their athletes. Are they creating more gender inequity at the same time?

July 9, 2014

As the much-awaited trial of an antitrust lawsuit challenging National College Athletic Association policies limiting players’ rights to be compensated for their likeness came to an end on June 27, Indiana University announced that it had created a "student-athlete bill of rights."

The bill promises comprehensive academic support, guaranteed four-year scholarships, and a formal "collective voice" in the administration of college athletics. The timing of the unveiling was not a coincidence, coming when there has never been more focus on the virtues and pitfalls of college athletics’ theoretic model of amateurism.

"We have committed to this extensive set of benefits and set it out transparently in writing, so that we can be held accountable for them by our student-athletes and other stakeholders such as our faculty and trustees,” Fred Glass, IU's athletic director, said in a statement. “While no other school has done this, we hope that others will follow for the betterment of the student-athlete experience."

The judge in the antitrust lawsuit is not expected to make a decision until August, but universities like Indiana, and the conferences they’re members of, have already begun addressing some of the very concerns raised during the trial. They may also be addressing their own worries, offering more in an attempt to fend off a movement to unionize college athletes.

The result is an escalating competition of athletes’ rights that some critics worry could have unintended consequences, including increasing inequity between men’s and women’s sports.

"This is now an arms race," Kristine Newhall, a sports management lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said. "Schools are going to see what each other are doing and think, 'We have to do that, too.’ ”

In late May, the college presidents of the Pac-12 conference signed an open letter directed at the NCAA and the presidents of the four other major conferences. In it, the presidents urged colleges to take “bold rather than incremental action” to address the rules that govern intercollegiate athletics.

Among other changes, the letter called for permitting institutions to make scholarship awards up to the full cost of college attendance; guaranteeing scholarships for enough time to complete a bachelor’s degree; liberalizing the current limitations on student athletes who wish to transfer between institutions; and decreasing the time demands placed on student athletes.

“A loss of momentum at this crucial time could leave the field to more extreme viewpoints that seek either to do away with college athletics entirely or professionalize them to such an extent as to have the same result," the presidents stated.

One month later, the Big Ten conference released a letter, signed by its 14 presidents, listing similar objectives – including guaranteeing four-year scholarships. That guarantee is also one of the primary tenets of IU’s new student-athlete bill of rights.

With many athletic scholarships being offered as one-year renewable grants, an athletic scholarship that lasts all four years – regardless of injury, illness, or athletic performance – is a rare guarantee. At Indiana, the promise will only apply to athletes in what are called head-count sports: football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, and women’s tennis.

Allen Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven and a former Notre Dame University football player, said offering four-year scholarships is one of the surest ways to fight the "professionalization" of college athletics – if that's the goal. Sack also sits on the executive committee of the Drake Group, an organization that defends academic integrity against what it considers to be "the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports."

When the NCAA created the one-year renewable scholarship rule in 1973, Sack said, it set college athletics on its current, more professional path.

"All of a sudden if an athlete didn't end up being the Heisman Trophy winner they wanted him to be, they could get rid of him," he said. "They could fire him. When the NCAA began to allow four-year scholarships again, schools started to see that while one-year scholarships gave them more control over the athletes, it also made the athletes look a hell of a lot like employees."

The return to four-year scholarships won't cost institutions much more than whatever they're already spending, Sack argued. Colleges and universities are already theoretically spending the money, he said, through either renewing an athlete's scholarship each year or paying the same amount to replace him.

And there are other ways to foot the bill, as well. To pay for some of the new benefits offered at IU, administrators are hoping to eventually have an endowment that is separate from the primary athletics budget. 

"The money is there," Sack said. "Some schools just have to be creative."

In June, the University of Southern California announced a similar, but more limited, approach to four-year scholarships. At USC, the scholarships will only be offered to athletes participating in the "revenue sports" of football and men’s and women’s basketball.

"In taking this action, USC hopes to help lead the effort to refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field," Pat Haden, USC's athletic director, said.

A few days after the announcement, a complaint was filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the scholarships are a Title IX violation. A spokesperson for USC said the university had not yet been notified of the complaint.

The complaint, provided to Inside Higher Ed with the name of the complainant redacted, argued that because many more male than female athletes will receive the scholarships, the practice is discriminatory. Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University and founder of the Title IX Blog, said the disproportionate benefit is likely not compliant with Title IX, though there may be some wiggle room depending on how the Office views the four-year scholarships.

"But there will never be enough women receiving this benefit to balance out the number of men in football and basketball," Buzuvis said.

The case, she said, reminds her of an older attempt to improve athlete rights that also unintentionally ran afoul of Title IX.

In 2011, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors approved legislation that would allow institutions to award an additional $2,000 per student in scholarship funds. The rule was suspended after 160 institutions rejected the idea, in part because far more male students would benefit from the increase than female.

"As more and more schools try to address student athlete rights and try to provide athletes with what they need, they're running into a little bit of trouble," Newhall, who also contributes to the Title IX Blog, said. "I don' t know if it's quite the classic 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' situation, but it doesn't seem like they've considered the Title IX ramifications, which is unfortunate."

Ramogi Huma, the founder of the National College Players Association and a former linebacker for UCLA, said colleges' recent attempts to provide more rights for athletes also remind him of the suspended stipends. The disagreement illustrates how fleeting some of the proposed changes can be, Huma said.

"These are not guarantees," he said. "These are still just promises, like the kinds of promises schools make when they're recruiting. Even if they put them into a written policy, policies can be overturned. They can be changed at the whim of an administrator. We've seen this happen before."

Huma said he is happy to see institutions thinking about how to better-address the rights and benefits of college athletes, but that administrative polices can't replace allowing students to unionize – a controversial position that gained momentum earlier this year after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University qualified as university employees.

The announcements are a step in the right direction, he said, but they're about public relations and defending amateurism as much as they are about helping student athletes. "They're not doing this because they had a change of heart," Huma said.

The Pac-12 and Big Ten letters argued in their letters that a pay-for-play model and labor unions "are not the answer," and defended the concept of amateurism in student athletics. Students don't need to unionize if their concerns are already being heard, they argued.

“The amateur model is not broken, but it does require adjusting for the 21st century,” the Big Ten presidents stated. “Whether we pay student-athletes is not the true issue here. Rather, it is how we as universities provide a safe, rewarding and equitable environment for our student-athletes as they pursue their education."


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