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For decades I have used events like March Madness, the NCAA’s season-ending basketball tournament, to bash the NCAA for transforming big-time college athletes into underpaid employees in a multibillion-dollar industry. Even worse, in my opinion, was the myth that these athletes were merely engaging in an extracurricular activity during their free time, like members of the drama club.  

Much to my surprise the NCAA, under the leadership of President Mark Emmert, has recently enacted financial aid reforms that may have brought my years of NCAA-bashing to an end. Critics have argued that the changes amount to little more than "window dressing," but a strong case can be made that the revival of multi-year scholarships represents one of the most significant educational reforms in recent NCAA history.

In 1956, the NCAA decided to openly subsidize college athletes by offering scholarships covering room, board, tuition and fees. But it was not until the introduction of one-year renewable scholarships in 1973 that coaches could cancel aid for just about any reason, including injury or poor athletic performance. At this point scholarships became binding contracts.

Over the next four decades, one-year renewable scholarships have provided the burgeoning college sports industry with a reliable and disciplined source of cheap labor. Athletes who do not meet a coach’s performance expectations are often encouraged to transfer or simply stripped of financial aid. Coaches’ jobs often depend on getting rid of “dead wood.”

It is difficult to overstate the kinds of demands coaches can make on players as a condition for the yearly renewal of financial aid. Coaches ask that athletes play with injury, and control their lives on and off the field. Because each season is a tryout for financial aid the next, sports takes priority. An NCAA survey carried out a few years ago found that big-time college football players spend an average of 44.8 hours a week on their sport in addition to time in the classroom.

A number of reform organizations, including the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, have recommended a return to multiyear scholarships over the years, but to no avail. The NCAA ignored such suggestions in deference to coaches who feared losing control over their players. Media pundits generally labeled proposals to return to multiyear scholarships as quixotic. Only two years ago, two ESPN basketball analysts, Andy Katz and Fran Fraschilla, assured me on "Outside the Lines" that the idea had no traction.

Rationalize Sports Recruiting
Recent scandals and embarrassing
escapades show that big changes
are needed in how big-time
programs recruit players,
two professors argue.

All of the skeptics have been proved wrong; the media silence is deafening. In the wake of one of the most tumultuous years in college sports, which included conference realignment motivated by greed, several lawsuits that challenged the NCAA on antitrust grounds, and a massive scandal at Penn State that raised questions about the role of big-time college sports in university governance, multiyear scholarships made a Rocky Balboa-like comeback.

The fact that the NCAA’s scholarship proposal barely survived an override vote lends credence to the argument that the NCAA has finally done something significant. For decades, universities have denied canceling scholarships for injury or poor performance. If they were telling the truth, why did so many oppose this new policy? The large number of dissenting votes suggests that in many schools, scholarship athletes have become expendable commodities.

The NCAA’s new legislation makes the adoption of multiyear scholarships optional, thus allowing athletes and their parents to chose between a one-year contract and a multiyear educational gift. If highly talented athletes choose programs that offer multiyear scholarships over those that do not, the NCAA will have rigged the recruiting game in favor of academic values. And this is how it should be.

At schools that decide to adopt multiyear scholarships, college athletes will be students, not cheap labor. Coaches will have to focus on teaching and player development because they will have to live with their “recruiting mistakes.” Federal Graduation Rates, the best measure of whether athletes graduate within six years from the university they entered as freshmen, will likely increase dramatically. And even though these scholarships can be canceled if an athlete voluntarily withdraws from sports, no court of law will mistake them for employment contracts.

Much more remains to be done. Academic standards must be raised to prevent special admits from playing as freshmen, and the minimum GPA for playing college sport should be 2.0 in all conferences. The clustering of athletes in classes that give high grades for little or no work -- a practice for which faculty must take responsibility -- should be eliminated. Faculty senates should review coaches' rules of conduct to make sure they are consistent with academic best practices. The list could go on, but the NCAA has taken a huge step toward meaningful reform.

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