Amid increasing federal scrutiny of college sports comes the latest salvo: the U.S. Department of Justice‘s inquiry  into the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s scholarship rules.
The NCAA revealed the antitrust review in a brief statement  on Thursday, but the Justice Department declined to confirm it, let alone offer any details about its nature. As a result, many legal experts and other potential commentators were wary of speculating too much about how the inquiry might unfold.
But the current and historical context surrounding the Justice Department review suggest that it comes at a significant moment for college sports. The antitrust inquiry comes amid more general questioning about collegiate sports by the federal government, on several fronts  and from several sources . And unlike some previous antitrust challenges to NCAA policies and rules, the Justice Department's inquiry could cut right to the heart of college sports, potentially buttressing pleas from advocates for athletes' rights for better financial support for collegiate players.
The NCAA rule -- which states that athletically related financial aid should be awarded one year at a time, and limited to a total of five years -- has been around since 1973. It has long been a bone of contention for advocates for athletes’ rights, who have pushed for multiyear scholarships  (at the very least -- many of them would prefer outright stipends or payments) to reinforce financial security and stability for college athletes.
“The NCAA is working with Justice to help it understand that athletics financial aid is a ‘merit’ award and an annual review of whether an individual meets the standards of a merit award is the most appropriate way to ensure that the most deserving student-athletes receive that award each year,” Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman, said in a statement Thursday. “Student-athletes must demonstrate that they deserve the merit-based award of athletics aid in two ways -- by remaining academically eligible for competition and by meeting participation expectations in the sport for which aid is granted.“
NCAA officials declined to comment further, and Justice Department officials would not even acknowledge the existence of the inquiry. Based on standard DOJ practice, an investigation like this one is likely to be conducted quietly and out of the public view, potentially for a long time.
Legal experts have relatively little to go on in interpreting what the Justice Department may be after. But to the extent they are looking at the NCAA's scholarship policies through an antitrust prism, the sorts of questions they are likely to be asking are the following: Do colleges, acting as a group, impede competition by forcing one another to offer athletic scholarships in this manner? To put it another (potentially more controversial) way, are colleges essentially fixing the price of what they give athletes for their services?
"Maybe if there was no NCAA rule for one-year scholarships, some colleges would offer four-year scholarships instead,” said Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont Law School and legal analyst for Sports Illustrated. “If a college is competing for a player, then that could be an appealing thing. From an athletic director’s point of view, a college might not have the budget to do this. But, if it were a free market, then who knows what they would do.”
Advocates for athletes’ rights say the Department of Justice inquiry has the potential to bring attention to an NCAA policy which they have criticized for decades, and which they say treats athletes unfairly. Legal challenges in the past have sought to force the NCAA  to increase the value of athletics scholarships, and the ultimate fear of college sports officials is that a court or government would seek to declare big-time college athletes to be workers rather than students, which could lead to a challenge of big-time sports' cherished status as an amateur, educational (and therefore non-taxable) enterprise.
“Some of the government interest in college athletes has been in issues around the periphery,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association . “There’s a laundry list of things that could show how the NCAA breaks antitrust laws, but this one-year scholarship rule is at the core of how players are taken advantage of. I’m pleased to see this issue be taken up by the Department of Justice.”
Most prospective athletes, Huma argues, are unaware that the athletically related scholarships being offered to them are only for one year and that renewal can be denied for any number of reasons, even if they remain in good academic standing.
“There’s no college coach telling players out on the recruiting trail that they’ll get a one-year scholarship and, with good luck, they’ll have it renewed,” Huma said. “Coaches lie to them. These kids think they’re on a four-year scholarship. You’re not supposed to be able to promise that. But where theory meets reality, there are a lot of deceptive coaches out there. It is my hope that, at the least, this inquiry would dispel the myth of the four-year scholarship and try to eliminate those deceptive recruiting practices."
The National College Players Association is sponsoring a bill in the California State Assembly to ensure that recruits know precisely what they are getting, and under what terms, before they sign with a college. “The Student-Athletes’ Right to Know Bill ” is awaiting review in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations. Huma believes the bill stands a good chance at passage if it makes it out of this committee, as it has bipartisan support.
Huma said numerous players who have not had their athletic scholarships renewed contact his organization every year. Most, he added, are in good academic standing but are kicked off their teams because they have sustained injuries, or because new coaches have over-recruited.Though players have a chance to appeal the nonrenewal of their scholarship at an institutional level, Huma called these “kangaroo courts” in which committee members “know what they are going to do before the player walks into the room.”
Those representing faculty at big-time sporting institutions have similar concerns about the nature of NCAA scholarship rules and how they are portrayed to athletes.
“Most faculty also have the mis-impression that these athletic scholarships are for four years,” said Ken Struckmeyer, co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics  and a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Washington State University. “We all assume it would allow them to finish their academic degree, but that’s not always the case.”
Struckmeyer argues that any athletic scholarships should be offered consistently, especially with regard to their renewal, as is other aid provided to students.
“Any other scholarship is based on performance,” Struckmeyer said. “The NCAA just has to say what those standards are. I’d probably be OK with the one-year rule if we just clarified the metrics. My only concern is who’s in control of them.”