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Tuesday, March 29. 2011

League of Fans’ Response to NCAA Rebuttal

In a rebuttal to the League of Fans’ initiative to eliminate athletic scholarships for big collegiate sports in favor of need-based financial aid, the NCAA said an athlete who receives an athletic scholarship is “just like any other student on campus who receives a merit-based scholarship.”

That assertion is unsupportable. Consider just a few reasons why:

Athletes receiving athletic stipends from universities are clearly in a “pay for play” contractual arrangement. Moreover, coaches can “fire” athletes – revoke their scholarships – for athletic performances they deem below par (or even due to injury!). This holds true even if the athlete in question is doing outstanding work in the classroom. What other scholarship students on campus get the boot if their academic performance is excellent? Given the terms of the athletic scholarship, athletics – not education – naturally becomes the first priority for athletes on scholarship or they risk losing their financial aid.

Coaches control the lives of scholarship athletes in a way that is much different than for any other students on campus. Not only do coaches determine if their athletes will keep their scholarship or not, they control where their athletes live, what they’ll eat, when they’ll eat, often what courses they’ll take — and when they’ll take them, and what campus activities, if any, they’ll be allowed to take part in. Athletes in a need-based financial aid system would be able to enjoy a much more normal college experience.

Unlike the vast majority of other students on campus, athletes are regularly given “special admissions” to our nation’s colleges and universities despite falling short of their school’s minimum admission requirements (i.e., grade point average and SAT scores). (Note: The League of Fans believes such “special admissions” for athletes undermine academic integrity and should be disallowed.)

Let’s be honest here for once NCAA. Athletic scholarships aren’t about getting athletes the best education; they’re about trying to put the best football and basketball teams together.

Look, we aren’t against intercollegiate athletics. In fact, we love college sports, at least the kind that involve amateurs and real students – like today’s Division III programs and the Ivy League schools that compete at the Division I level. Our purpose is simply to bring some integrity back to colleges and universities and return the original intent of college athletics: real students interested in making sports part of their overall educational experience while on campus.

It’s a little known fact today, but from 1906, when the NCAA was founded, until 1957, when the organization sold its collective soul and allowed athletic stipends, the NCAA strictly forbade athletic scholarships, seeing them as “pay for play.” According to the NCAA’s original constitution and founding principles, violations of amateurism included “the offering of inducements to players to enter colleges or universities because of their athletic abilities …”

An unfortunate side effect of the professionalization we see in college athletics is that this trend toward the professionalization of young athletes has filtered down to the high school and youth sports levels. The primary reason for this troublesome trend is the time, energy, and money parents, coaches and young athletes put into the quest for an extremely elusive athletic scholarship. Sadly, the over-the-top focus on potential athletic scholarships is warping the ideals and values of high school and youth sports programs.

All the League of Fans is asking the NCAA and university presidents to do is return amateur principles to intercollegiate athletics, and make athletes — and athletic departments — part of the overall higher education mission once again. A move to eliminate athletic scholarships in favor of need-based financial aid would have societal benefits at the intercollegiate, high school and youth levels of sports.

Athletes who wish to go to college but are economically-disadvantaged, can still qualify for need-based aid. Athletes who are only interested in athletic careers, and not a college education, can seek opportunities with lower-level professional leagues.

If the NCAA isn’t interested in taking the steps necessary to eliminate athletic scholarships and reestablish athletic departments as part of the educational mission at our institutions of higher learning, why shouldn’t there be a repeal of the tax-exempt status our government gives university athletic departments and a call for big-time athletic programs to be reclassified as unrelated subsidiaries under the university umbrella? In this scenario, athletes officially would be deemed university employees and compensated in a manner commensurate with their market value.

In closing, we welcome the opportunity to debate NCAA officials regarding the pros and cons of athletic scholarships and their impact not only on college sports, but on our country’s high school and youth sports programs as well.

(See the original response from NCAA vice president of communications Bob Williams here)

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