How Scholarships Leave Student-Athletes Powerless in the NCAA Game

While March Madness kicks into full swing, it highlights college athletes who are simultaneously the most visible and most vulnerable students in the country.

By Jamilah King Mar 23, 2012

It’s easy to not see the other side of college sports. Especially in March, when the country’s top basketball teams compete for a national championship. There’s the non-stop media coverage, the celebrations and heartbreak on the court, the Cinderella stories and the fall of perennial powerhouses. March Madness is one of the most exciting times in American sports because of its tradition, because of the fact that no one really knows what’s going to happen and because of the sheer athleticism of the teams on the floor. 

So amid all that clamor, it’s easy to overlook less glamorous facts, like this one: A recent study by the National College Player’s Association found that in 2009-10, the poorest basketball and football players generated combined revenues in each sport of more than $30 million but lived $3,000 to $5,000 below the poverty line. 

"It’s a real contradiction to think that the most highly publicized, physically powerful images that we see about students on television could actually hide the fact that they’re among the most vulnerable we see on our campuses," says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University.

That vulnerability is by design, thanks in large part to the tenuous hold most student athletes have on the athletic scholarships that enable them to compete in the first place. Over the course of decades, a scholarship system that once empowered student athletes now leaves them at the mercy of their coaches and of a multibillion dollar industry. 

"Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by 1 percent of the athletes," Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive, told The Atlantic in a scathing take-down of the dirty side of college sports. "Go to the skill positions," Vaccaro said, meaning college basketball’s stars. "Ninety percent African Americans." The NCAA made its money off those kids, and so did Vaccaro. So does everyone making money off of Division 1 college sports. 

"A horrible experience"

The dynamics Vaccaro points out aren’t limited to the highest profile players, though.

Currently, there’s a one-year limit on athletic scholarships at NCAA Division 1 schools, and those scholarships must be renewed each year by a team coach. That puts most student athletes in a precarious position, where their scholarships could be taken away on a whim and they’re left with little chance to finish school.

That’s what happened to Jennifer Harris, a former women’s basketball player at the Penn State University. Though Harris was considered one of the team’s top players heading into the 2006 season, she was dismissed from the team–and, by extension, the school–by then-coach Rene Portland. 

Harris accused Portland of kicking her off the team because of Harris’s presumed sexual orientation; Portland had reportedly been enforcing a "no lesbians" policy for decades. "I will not have it in my program," Portland told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986 when she described what she says to prospective players on recruiting visits. "I bring it up and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved." She added: "But they would probably go without asking the question otherwise, which is really dumb."

Harris said that Portland barred her from associating with another student on campus whom she suspected of being a lesbian. The coach then began criticizing Harris for wearing sweatpants too often, admonishing her to wear tighter jeans and to avoid wearing cornrows in her hair.

Harris filed a federal lawsuit against Portland, the school’s athletic director, and the university. But while the case wound its way through the courts and grabbed headlines, she wasn’t able to compete and had to look for another school to finish her degree. She finally settled on James Madison University, where she played on the women’s basketball team, too.

The lawsuit against Portland and Penn State was eventually settled for undisclosed terms. But an internal investigation by the school found that Portland had created a "hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment" for Harris based on the thought that she might be a lesbian. Portland was fined $10,000, and resigned in 2007.

Harris won in the end: She settled her suit, was vindicated by an internal investigation that led to the coach’s resignation, and graduated from James Madison University in 2008. But her story is telling: She’d gone from being one of the most heavily recruited and promising women’s basketball players in the country to being stuck in college sports purgatory, all because her coach didn’t like her.

"It was a horrible experience," Harris told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly after she was dismissed from Penn State in 2006. "It’s definitely made me more cautious of the people you put your trust in."

Changing the System

Harris’s case may sound like an extreme example, but it’s one of the handful of ways that student athletes can be kicked out of school. A coach–because of injuries or attitude–could decide to kick a player off of a team, or simply not renew their scholarship award for the next year.

From 2008 to 2009, 22 percent of men’s college basketball players didn’t have their scholarships renewed, according to the National College Players Association.

The concept of the athletic scholarship dates back to 1957, when it was first approved by the NCAA. Staurowsky explains that athletes got money for tuition, room and board, and about $15 of "laundry money" to spend on personal expenses. Most importantly, athletic scholarships lasted all four years of college. So if an athlete was injured or had academic conflicts, they could opt out of being a member of an athletic team but still have their tuition paid for by the school.

This, however, made coaches uneasy. They accused some college athletes of acting in bad faith by accepting the scholarships without any intention of playing for a team. In the late ’60s, the NCAA adopted something called the "fraudulent misrepresentation rule" that gave coaches the power to cancel an athlete’s scholarship if they thought the student had indeed "acted in bad faith." By the late ’70s, the NCAA altered the agreements made by athletic scholarships by limiting them to only one year.

"The accumulated effect over time was that we saw the balance of power shift and athletes had less and less power to make decisions on their own behalf," says Staurowsky.

Calls for Reform

As the balance of power shifted, college sports became enormously lucrative. College football generated $3.15 million per school in 2010, according to the NCAA. That same year, men’s college basketball took in $788,000 per school. In 2010, CBS and Time Warner teamed up to purchase the broadcast rights to men’s March Madness for the next 14 years at a staggering cost of $10.8 billion. And so far, it seems like a good investment: advertising spots for this year’s NCAA Men’s Division 1 basketball championship game are going for $1.5 million each, according to Adweek.

While a select crop of players do go on to make millions playing professionally, they’re in the minority. Less than one percent of college basketball players make it to the NBA. Despite the fact that they’re often the face of their school’s lucrative athletic programs, many players don’t see any financial benefits. 

Facts like those, coupled with the observation that many of the top college basketball and football players are black and many come from working class backgrounds, has prompted some to call for reforming the NCAA’s system and possibly paying college athletes.

And then there’s simply making it to graduation. In recent years, as many as 80 percent of black college basketball players haven’t graduated. While the graduation rate gap between white and black college basketball players is slowly closing, there’s been little effort on the part of the NCAA to reform its one-year athletic scholarship policy. Instead, former NCAA athletes have taken their case to court.

In 2010, a former Rice University football player named Taylor Agnew filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA, alleging that the one-year limit on scholarship was in effect a price fixing scheme by the league and its member universities. Agnew’s athletic scholarship wasn’t renewed when a new coach took over his former school’s football program.

"People look at the NCAA as kind of outside these laws, but they’re really not," Steve Berman, one of Agnew’s attorneys, told the New York Times. "Here, they have entered into an agreement restraining the length of a scholarship that kids can get, and we think that’s anticompetitive and is harmful to student-athletes."