Friday, March 25. 2011

League of Fans Proposes Eliminating Athletic Scholarships to Help Restore Integrity on College Campuses

Initiative Would Positively Impact High School and Youth Sports As Well

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the NCAA’s Final Four draws near, League of Fans, a Ralph Nader sports reform project, today called for our nation’s colleges and universities to take a bold step toward restoring academic integrity in intercollegiate sports by eliminating the athletic scholarship.

“As we near the exciting conclusion of ‘March Madness’ — which would more accurately be described as the 2011 NCAA Professional Basketball Championships — it’s time we step back and finally address the myth of amateurism surrounding big-time college football and basketball in this country,” said League of Fans founder, Ralph Nader. “By eliminating the athletic scholarship, and replacing it with need-based financial aid, we could de-professionalize college athletes, reestablish athletic departments as part of the educational institution, and be able to use the term “student-athlete” without snickering.”

Big-time college sports (NCAA Division I) have increasingly mimicked professional sports over the past 25 years. As such, there have been growing questions about whether professionalized college sports contribute to educational values in any meaningful way.

In addition, college faculty members are becoming increasingly concerned about what’s happening on their campuses as incidents of academic corruption involving the athletic department damage the reputations of universities.

While many analysts are ready to give up on college sports and simply classify big-time college athletics programs as professional sports subsidiaries of our major universities, League of Fans believes it’s worth fighting to save the original intent of college athletics: real students interested in making sports part of their overall educational experience while on campus.

With the exception of Princeton, which doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, all the teams in the NCAA tournament are made up of professional athletes.

“Clearly athletes on scholarship are pro athletes. Professional sports means ‘pay for play,’” says Ken Reed, senior issues analyst for League of Fans. “Athletic scholarships are financial inducements to play sports at college. Basically, they are one-year contracts between an athlete and a coach. Coaches can literally fire athletes for poor performance or injury. As such, a scholarship athlete’s first priority in college is to play sports. Education is a secondary consideration. Paying for young people to come to college campuses to focus on sports – not education – is perverse.”

The Drake Group, a national network of college faculty whose mission is to defend academic integrity on campus, supports the move to eliminate athletic scholarships. In a position statement the group said, “By replacing athletic scholarships with need-based financial aid, most athletic programs could reduce current budget deficits, better meet the requirements of Title IX, and, most important, maintain college athletes as an integral part of the student body.”

Even Walter Byers, the NCAA’s executive director from 1951 to 1987, is now calling for the banning of the athletic scholarship. Byers persuasively argues that assistance to athletes should be based on financial need and academic talents – not athletic ability. He also says the financial aid office should control the renewal of funds — not the athletic department – as is the case with any other student.

Eliminate the athletic scholarship and athletes can be students again.

“Eliminating athletic scholarships in favor of need-based aid would lessen significantly the often-excessive athletic department power and control over student-athletes,” according to John Gerdy, a visiting sports administration professor at Ohio University. “There’s no better way to empower the student.”

There is little doubt that the athletic scholarship is at the center of a lot of the problems with college sports today, but it also is a key driver of many of the problems plaguing high school and youth sports as well.

“By eliminating athletic scholarships and special admits from the college admissions offices for athletes, we could significantly mitigate many of the problems plaguing college sports today,” says Reed. “We could also lessen many of the commercialization and professionalization abuses seeping down to the high school and youth sports levels.”

Here’s the bonus: The benefits of eliminating the athletic scholarship at the college level continue at the lower levels of sports in our country. The high pressure, win-at-all-costs mentality that permeates our youth and high school sports programs is often “justified” as the price necessary to earn a college scholarship.

An entire industry has developed in the youth sports arena –club teams, personal trainers, etc. — to prey on families’ dreams of an athletic scholarship. The lure of the elusive athletic scholarship is the primary – sometimes the only – marketing tool these youth sports entrepreneurs use.

Athletic scholarships lend a financial rationale to the premature creation of elite competitive travel teams that now dominate the youth sports landscape. Parents are spending $2,500-$5,000 a year on these club sports teams. This despite very long odds for the kids and parents seeking an athletic scholarship.

With the allure of college athletic scholarships, the focus in our youth and high school sports programs has increasingly been on the development of elite athletes vs. participation for all. Intramurals and physical education programs have been scaled way back during today’s childhood obesity epidemic, while varsity high school programs, which serve only a small percentage of the student population, remain sufficiently funded.

Critics argue that eliminating the athletic scholarship also eliminates opportunity for underprivileged young athletes seeking to go to college. Not true. Any athlete needing financial help for college can still qualify for need-based aid. Athletes who are only interested in athletic careers can seek opportunities with lower-level professional leagues.

Moreover, if these athletes can’t meet a school’s regular admission standards, but still want to pursue an education, they can go to junior colleges or NAIA schools with more modest academic requirements.

Critics also say that nobody will watch the games anymore if the athletic scholarship is eliminated and the “level of play” drops. This argument is absurd on its surface. If fans only cared about “level of play,” only professional games would be attended.

As long as the player in your school’s jersey scores a touchdown against the player in your hated rival’s jersey, college sports will still have appeal, no matter how fast or strong the athletes are. What the college sports fan wants is for the competition to be fair, for both teams to be playing by the same set of rules.

In fact, some fans might like college athletics more without athletic scholarships. Why? Less hypocrisy; more true student-athletes. A big part of what makes college sports popular is that it supposedly stands for a higher purpose, i.e., students playing for their school as they seek a college education.

It’s time to end the lie that is big-time college athletics today. To do so, we’re left with two choices: 1) Integrate athletics – and athletes – into the educational mission of colleges and universities by eliminating athletic scholarships – along with special admissions for college athletes; or 2) Openly acknowledge the professionalism in big-time college sports, remove the tax-exempt status currently given to athletic departments, and make universities operate them as unrelated businesses — apart from their educational mission.

The League of Fans believes it’s worth supporting the first option.

“It’s time for our college athletes to be true students on campus, not athletes on athletic stipends with sports – not education – as their top priority and obligation,” says Nader.

Ken Reed, League of Fans Senior Issues Analyst
[email protected]


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