NCAA Scholarship Rules Expose Yet Another Hypocrisy in College Sports

Hayden Bird@haydenhbirdCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2011

A cross-section of a man caught at a moment of decision bound to reverberate across his entire profession.
A cross-section of a man caught at a moment of decision bound to reverberate across his entire profession.Nick Laham/Getty Images

Real quick: What percentage of Division I athletic scholarships are multi-year? Fifty percent? Sixty percent? More?

Had someone asked me this question anytime before a couple days ago, I would have probably guessed a high percentage.

The answer: zero.

There are no NCAA Division I athletic scholarships that go longer than a single year at a time. Obviously, many of the players who want to play four years of varsity D-I athletics on a scholarship (and who were originally given scholarships as freshmen) are able to do so. The school just re-ups each year.

The company line of the NCAA

Yet why do they only give one-year scholarships? What advantage is derived from exclusively handing out one-year scholarships? It got me thinking (a rarity in this day and age), so I decided to ask the NCAA directly.

I emailed Mark Emmert, the NCAA President, as well as any NCAA email address I could get my hands on.

Surprisingly, no one answered.

Which is too bad (and I’m actually serious). I am genuinely curious about this rule. Obviously I understand the wording of the rule itself (established in 1973, when the NCAA split up into divisions and limited athletic scholarships), but what’s the rationalization behind it?

From what I could discern after trawling the Internet, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams has said that:

“the award of athletic scholarships on a one year, renewable basis is the more typical approach taken within higher education for talent-based and academic scholarships in general.”

Basically, Williams has found a roundabout way of saying, “Everybody’s doing it!”

A more official NCAA statement on the issue declares:

“Athletic 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. 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.”

Reading between the lines 

Of course, it’s an easy rule to see through and how players can be exploited. They can be cut after any season—and not just because of failing academic standards or breaking school rules.

Players can be cut for injuries, for not playing well or even merely having the bad luck of being around when a coaching change occurs (and since many coaches like to bring in “their guys,” that doesn’t always leave room for previous team members to remain on scholarship).

Take Joseph Agnew, a once promising defensive back who enrolled at Rice University on a football scholarship in the fall of 2006. He played in all 13 games that season for the school, but his head coach, Todd Graham (who had recruited Agnew), left after that season for the University of Tulsa.

With a new coach and a series of injuries (including shoulder and ankle surgeries), Agnew was phased out of the team, losing his scholarship after his sophomore season. He appealed the decision and won scholarship for his junior year but was thrown off his senior year and had to pay tuition completely out of pocket.

There are no records that his academic performance dropped or that he simply wasn’t trying on the field. He was fired from his job because he couldn’t perform it and didn’t fit the coach’s plan. Does that sound like an acceptable transaction to happen to a so-called “amateur” athlete?

Of course not! That’s why Agnew has filed a lawsuit against the NCAA (which is currently in court).

Time to recognize college sports for what they

If players like Agnew help the university make money, shouldn’t they be able to collectively bargain, if not for an out-and-out salary, then at least for the length of their scholarship?

Shouldn’t a player (who’s helping the school do well and profit) be insured with a full, four-year scholarship whether or not something happens that makes the school regret its decision? Isn’t that how you make a deal that isn’t utterly one-sided?

The NCAA’s perpetual counterpoint: They’re amateur athletes who are students before being athletes. They can’t collectively bargain with us.

The NCAA’s official narrative, which we’ve seen countless times in ads during March Madness, declares that “400,000 student athletes are going pro in something other than sports.” They go to great lengths to emphasize the “student” part of the student-athlete.

Tell me, how does it help a student to allow coaches the opportunity to cut an athlete from his scholarship after every season because he or she might not meet “participation expectations?”

The fear of losing scholarships drives athletes to ridiculous workout schedules, playing injured and, most of all, neglecting their studies. Surely even the NCAA has to recognize the blatant hypocrisy.


It’s time for change—and finally, thanks to people like Agnew and organizations like PBS’s Frontline (who just did a segment about this), along with the always unsung public advocate Ralph Nader, there are growing signs that the NCAA and its well-coifed President might be willing to talk (or, more accurately, see the writing on the wall about their multi-billion dollar organization that laughably labels itself a “non-profit”).

Emmert recently told USA Today regarding sharing some of the revenue with players, “The sooner the better. ... I will make clear that I want this to be a subject that we explore.”

I don’t think this is even close to the end of this problem. But in the words of a much better writer than I, this might finally be “the end of the beginning.”