The realignment of major college football conferences highlights the explosive growth of commercialism in college sports, and universities’ willingness to exploit supposedly amateur athletes to reach new television markets. Most sports fans are aware that universities already pay athletes in the form of room and board, tuition and fees, an investment that can range from $30,000 to $50,000 a year. However, given rapid industry expansion, it is reasonable to ask if college athletes deserve a raise.
There are good reasons to raise the National Collegiate Athletic Association's cap on player compensation. Big-time college athletes are generating more revenue than ever, much of which is funneled into non-revenue and women’s sports. They provide great commercial entertainment and a marketing platform for hundreds of other non-sports products. Although other merit award recipients contribute to campus life, they do not fill stadiums with thousands of fans. They do not risk serious injury daily, and coaches do not control their lives from dawn to dusk.
From an academic perspective, the most reasonable way to increase player compensation is to enhance their opportunity to receive the education a scholarship is supposed to provide. As John Thompson, Georgetown’s former men’s basketball coach, has said, “If you get a scholarship, it is extremely important to understand that it has a money value to it.” A few changes in NCAA rules could significantly increase federal graduation rates for athletes, thus raising the dollar value of their scholarships.
One such proposal is to return to multiyear scholarships. This proposal, which the NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, says is gaining broad support within the NCAA, would guarantee the yearly renewal of financial aid to athletes who continue playing and adhere to team rules. Under this system, coaches would no longer be able to cancel scholarships to make room for more talented players, thus increasing the percentage of freshmen likely to graduate from the school that recruited them.
Another proposal gaining support within the NCAA is to pay athletes a stipend that would cover the full cost of attendance at their institutions. In 2009-10, the gap between the full cost of attending college and the amount the NCAA allows colleges to pay was about $3,940 at the University of Alabama. The term, “full ride,” is often used when referring to athletic scholarships. This proposal would make paying the full cost of attending college a reality and help athletes stay the course to graduation.
The federal graduation rate measures the proportion of students who graduate from the college they entered as freshmen within six years. The FGR for the general student body at the University of Florida in 2010 was 81 percent, compared with only 42 percent for football players. Multiyear scholarships covering the full cost of attendance would narrow the gap between football players and other students. In fact, the graduation rate for players would likely exceed that of other students at many colleges.
Proposals such as these, in conjunction with other reforms such as not allowing athletes admitted outside their colleges’ normal admissions processes to play as freshmen, would send out a strong message that the NCAA is committed to athletes as students, not as commodities in a labor market. Whether the NCAA restores multiyear scholarships, or retains one-year awards whose renewal is not conditioned on athletic ability or injury, this landmark legislation would recapture the spirit of amateurism that makes college sport a distinctive entertainment product.
The NCAA should make these changes immediately. Not only would this legislation improve federal graduation, but it would help the NCAA achieve its stated purpose of treating athletes as an integral part of the student body. Research has found that the higher the retention rate, the more socially and academically integrated a student is into a college or university. Forcing athletes who have been recruiting mistakes to transfer by canceling their scholarships turns them into academic nomads.
Adopting multiyear scholarships would also be a brilliant NCAA strategy for staving off attacks from the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department, and a growing number of legal experts who think the line separating professional and collegiate sport has all but disappeared. When athletic scholarships become educational gifts rather than employment contracts, no court of law will challenge the NCAA’s commitment to education or mistake college athletes for players in the NFL.