Inconsistent Implementation of Multiyear Scholarships Provides More Ammunition for NCAA Hardliners

Posted by Chris Johnson on April 22nd, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The chorus of vitriol aimed at the NCAA will grow louder and louder over the next few months as college sports prepares for the landmark court case that could completely uproot its economic model. Well-reasoned critiques of the organization’s various hot debate points — the amateurism model, NCAA executives’ inflated salaries, the growing broad-scale realization that student-athletes aren’t entitled to the smallest slice of the massive TV revenue pie generated by broadcasts of their athletic competitions across as many television sets as humanly possible, president Mark Emmert – have become synonymous with any discussion of the NCAA, period. Enunciate the four-letter acronym, and be prepared for a deluge of denunciatory comments and generalized screeds about “exploitation” or “uncompensated labor” or, in its most extreme form, “slavery.” I have heard them all, and at this point, I’m ready to table the amateurism discussion for a while. If you’re looking for the next big date on the NCAA calendar, that’s June 20 – when the Ed O’Bannon group will file for class certification and potentially place the NCAA in extremely hot waters, with the very real possibility of inducing a settlement that could lead to direct concessions on the amateurism model everyone loves to hate.

Multi-year scholarships have been applied languidly  across Division I athletics (AP Photo).

Multi-year scholarships have been applied languidly across Division I athletics (AP Photo).

In the interim, there’s another NCAA-related topic that deserves your attention. When the NCAA passed a motion last year to allow Division I institutions the option of offering multiyear scholarships, one of the most frequently cited items on Emmert’s personally touted reform agenda, approval came and went without anyone paying much mind to one important fact: more than half of the 300 + Division I institutions voting on the matter flatly turned it down. According to the NCAA, who received ballots from 90 percent of Division I schools, the 62.12 percent voting against the measure fell just short of the required 65 percent disapproval rate. If the message wasn’t clear then, it certainly is now: most programs were never in favor of offering multiyear grants-in-aid, and the latest accounting on the matter reaffirms that premise in excellent detail. Thanks to some excellent reporting from Brad Wolverton and Joshua Newman of the Chronicle, the statistical realities of multiyear scholarship offerings have been laid bare for all NCAA-critics to supplement their typical dose of amateurism-related harangues with a new topic entirely. To the surprise of almost no one, the results plainly confirm the mixed opinions at the voting table last year.

Nearly two-thirds of the 56 most powerful Division I public universities now offer multiyear awards, according to a Chronicle review of public records. Yet few of those institutions do so for more than a handful of athletes.

It’s important to recognize one hugely important stipulation right off the bat: Emmert and his board of directors pushed this legislation through without any sort of sanction-backed enforcement clause. Schools are merely encouraged, not legislatively mandated, to offer multiyear grants-in-aid. As Wolverton and Newman note, there are select schools beginning to adopt the idea across select sports, and a few – such as Fresno State, which “handed out 425 multiyear awards this year”, one for every scholarship athlete – that have embraced the concept across all categories of Division I student athlete involvement: female, male, revenue-producing, and non-revenue producing. What you might be surprised to learn is the motivation behind using these recently-approved packages is far more nefarious than originally intended.

Some schools use multiyear awards as a persuasive mechanism to guarantee prospective recruits four-year residence at the school, while others exchange lengthier room-and-board guarantees in exchange for stricter behavioral and academic standards. Others still, such as Brad Barnes, assistant director of compliance at Texas A&M, a school described as being “largely opposed” to the multiyear approach, believe student-athletes are slow to recognize their “bargaining power” – that somehow student-athletes are supposed to not only request the removal of the renewable clause from their scholarship agreements, but actually attempt to exact drawbacks on the level of scholarship-cutting discretion wielded by college coaches. That’s a small sample of the most conspicuous moral mishandlings of the multiyear scholarship’s original intent, but those things were going to happen no matter who did or did not elect to follow Emmert’s lead. NCAA rules are skirted. Schools use the most liberal interpretations possible when deciding how to enforce new legislation. Welcome to today’s NCAA.

The more sinister aspect to this entire situation, if it has not already been made abundantly clear, is the list of schools who simply deny their athletes (or most of them) the privilege of protracted financial security at their respective institutions. To illustrate the point, consider a professional football player entering the final year of his deal. Some elect to play out their deals and hope to enter free agency with the chance of signing a longer and more lucrative contract. Others hold out of training camp; they use whatever leverage they have – in the NFL’s case, not reporting to team workouts – to force general managers into negotiating a more amenable financial solution. Typically what happens is, both sides eventually reach a settlement, the player rejoins his team, perhaps having signed a one-year deal, and either receives a long-term deal in the offseason or begins the cycle anew one year later. The other possibilities? Injuries, coaches deciding a certain player does not fit in with stylistic constructs, sketchy behavioral dismissals (“violations of team policy” chief among them), or a burdensome contract that gets shed in the name of staying under the salary cap. Because NFL payers have non-guaranteed contracts, they fight annually for financial security – only in theory, granted (the true stars in the league, the Brady’s and Manning’s and Brees’, are a separate class).

(Screenshot from aforementioned article)

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 7.03.58 PMUnder the old one-year system, which still rules the land in most cases today, student athletes operated under many of the same rules, only without the very bargaining power Barnes mentions above. If schools insist on segmenting scholarships over four years, leaving a professional (exclusive to the NFL, but still) financial framework in place, then said framework necessarily demands professional financial compensation, or maybe I’m just missing something. The only negotiating heft players can realistically pursue, is the ability to transfer and pursue multiyear awards at other institutions, but even that lateral mobility has its obstructive limitations (See Uthoff, Jared), not to mention a required one-year waiting period. Coaches can take new jobs at their leisure, even after giving long-term financial commitments to stay at their current schools (See Alford, Steve). They can bargain.

Players don’t have anywhere near the same leeway. They are handed renewable contracts, guaranteed one season and beyond that, nothing else. Coaches have discretionary power to do what’s in the best interest of the team, and not particularly the individual, which allows for a malevolent degree of roster flexibility and noncommittal scholarship tendencies. It means a backup point guard passed over by an incoming recruit can see his free college tuition ripped from under his feet. It means a quarterback who tears his ACL can be cast off as dead roster weight.

The multiyear legislation was intended to change the culture, but all the mostly toothless institution could do in this instance was ram the new guidelines under the weak exigency of encouragement. At the time of agreement – if 62 percent disapproval is what you’d call an agreement – there was an implicit understanding of a gradual acceptance of a more equitable scholarship arrangement for today’s student athletes. More and more programs would take the initiative, the outliers would dwindle and any remaining detractors would be viewed as archaic and grossly out-of-touch with the modern state of college athletics. Players would migrate away from one-year-scholarship-only institutions, anyway. However it happened, renewable contracts would be flushed out of the scholarship discourse, practically extinct and morally backward. The change was supposed to help athletes.

Weighty NCAA policy like this takes time to sink in, and the window of analysis between last August (when the rule was enacted) and now is less than ideal. I willfully accept those caveats and I offer you this grating timeline: the meager evidence we do have, which suggests a largely passive response to mult-year grants in aid and only sporadic progressive changes, and whatever skewed analysis this small sample may have evinced, is but a mere fraction as unnerving as the pressurized horizon promised by the looming O’Bannon legislative tsunami. Of course I would like some more time before reaching a better-informed consensus. So would the NCAA.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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