Having Their Backs Once They Return

A new NCAA rule says Division I institutions must cover costs for certain basketball players who want to come back to college -- but experts question whether it's enough, or whether "lifetime" scholarships should be for all athletes.

August 16, 2018

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has made a new promise to Division I basketball players: under certain conditions, if a player leaves and returns to the same university, the institution must pay for the player's degree and other expenses. 

Though this appears to be a positive shift in the package of reforms that the NCAA announced last week in the wake of an alleged kickback scheme in men's basketball, the association could not immediately confirm how many athletes might take advantage of the new rule -- or how much it will cost institutions. A few prominent programs and athletic conferences have already started complying, even though it doesn't take effect until next year.

“To some extent it constitutes an acknowledgment that the previous system was deficient” in assuring players an education, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and professor at Smith College. He said the move was “a good step.”

Under the new rule, effective August 2019, Division I colleges and universities must pay for tuition, fees and books for basketball players, both men and women, who leave an institution and come back within a decade. Players must have been on scholarship and enrolled at the institution for at least two years and must have "exhausted all other funding options" to be eligible, the NCAA said. They must also meet all NCAA academic requirements.

An NCAA spokeswoman, Meghan Durham, said the association doesn’t know how many athletes might use the program, but in the past 14 years more than 1,300 Division I men’s basketball players have come back to finish their degrees.

The NCAA will establish a fund for “limited resource” institutions to help pay the new expenses. “Limited resource” status is based on funding in an athletics department, other institutional expenditures and Pell Grant aid. Durham also didn’t immediately respond to a question about how much money the NCAA would dedicate to the new fund.

Many of the policy changes the NCAA approved elicited scorn for being too small to be of any significance, and this one was no exception: Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College and a sports law specialist, said that while the association can tout the new rule as major, in reality it will rarely be invoked. While the NCAA's announcement said the change does not specifically apply to players who turn professional, Edelman said most athletes who do turn professional before finishing their degrees are unlikely to ever return to college.

“The NCAA is doing the absolute minimum possible to spin public relations in a positive light,” Edelman said. “And this means coming up with measures that still do not allow athletes financial freedom or more sincerely allow them to balance their time.”

Over the years, several institutions and athletics conferences have announced that they would honor “lifetime” scholarships for athletes. The University of Maryland College Park was the first do so, shortly after joining the prominent Big Ten Conference in 2014. Previously, Maryland athletes were offered a single-year scholarship subject to renewal every year -- the “lifetime” scholarship also covered books and fees in addition to tuition for any athlete who left in good academic standing. At the time, former athletics director Kevin Anderson said the program wouldn’t “cost in the millions of dollars.”

Both the University of South Carolina and Indiana University offer similar “lifetime” deals.

“I think all schools should find a way to provide this opportunity for student athletes in all sports,” said Kenneth Shropshire, chief executive of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University.

Dave Ridpath, president of the ethics watchdog organization the Drake Group, agreed. He believes that all athletes’ scholarships should last a lifetime so they can come back and complete their degree anytime.

“I have always said we should not care when they get an education, just that they have an opportunity for a viable one,” Ridpath said. “A lifetime scholarship is a much better way to ensure access to a real education … It is fine that an athlete wants to focus on athletic utility when it can be maximized. However, that ends, and these kids who were used for institutional advancement, marketing, enrollment management, etc., should be given that opportunity without restrictions.”

The NCAA also offers some help for Division I athletes who can’t complete their degrees within five years -- called, aptly, the Degree Completion Award Program. Since 1989, the program has given out more than $30 million, according to the NCAA. Athletes must be within 30 semester hours of graduating to be eligible.

This new program and fund from the NCAA will especially benefit those institutions with fewer resources, said Josephine R. Potuto, former member of the NCAA Division I infractions committee and Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Any fund that applies to NCAA institutions across the board is in essence a subsidy to those less wealthy institutions, Potuto said. This is because most NCAA revenue comes from the men’s basketball championship, which is generally dominated by institutions in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Power 5 Conferences, she said.

“I think the new NCAA rule is more an acknowledgment … that some student athletes are in school primarily as a way to get a pro career, whether that goal is realistic or not, and a statement that schools owe them an opportunity for a degree if the pro career falls through,” Potuto said.

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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