Sack athletic scholarships

Allen Barra

September 25, 1990|By Allen Barra

OF THE MAKING of reforms," Confucius is said to have said, "there is no end." With regard to college sports, he might have added: Especially when the reforms are half-hearted.

If the National Collegiate Athletic Association is serious about making reforms in college sports, there's one sweeping measure that is simple, fair and economically advantageous: Do away with athletic scholarships.

Scarcely a week goes by without news of some fresh scandal involving the football programs at our major schools. Steroids at Notre Dame. Chaos at Oklahoma. The off-campus activities of the Miami Hurricanes alone could have kept Don Johnson and the crew of "Miami Vice" busy for another season. And how serious is the NCAA about solving these problems?

The NCAA's usual response, when it gets around to taking action, is to punish thousands of students and student athletes by barring their schools' teams from TV and post-season competition. Of course students and student athletes are easier to punish than coaches and administrators; they have no rights.

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the writer Douglas Looney suggested that a return to one-platoon football would cut the average school's athletic budget by nearly 25 percent, largely because the NCAA's current limit of 95 scholarships per year could be reduced to 60.

Why not go a step further? Since most of the schools that compete in big-time football would lose money if not for TV, why not save everyone a lot more money by eliminating athletic scholarships entirely?

Today's college athletes are professionals in every significant way except one: They don't get paid. They are there not to learn but to make money for the colleges. The money is a fact of life and can't be done away with so long as millions of alumni and fans are willing to pay for tickets and turn on their television sets. What's to be done short of turning 18-year-olds into legitimate professionals?

For starters, colleges can get out of the business of being a cost-free minor league for the pro leagues. The elimination of athletic scholarships would mean that football and basketball players would be ill-prepared for pro sports. But why should that concern colleges?

Colleges would be forced to try something new: to field teams comprising college students, not future pro draft picks. There would be no more preferential treatment for "scholar-athletes."

Without athletic scholarships, we'd really find out if students from Miami play football better than students from Notre Dame. More to the point, we'd find out if Miami and Notre Dame, once their recruiting machines are gone, are really better than, say, Northwestern and Georgia Tech.

The primary objections to this come, as you'd expect, from the coaches and NCAA administrators. If would cut down on revenues, they say.

But why? Even if the networks paid less for a game played by nonscholarship athletes, the schools would still earn big bucks; certainly more than it would have cost them to field the teams.

The second objection is stickier: The elimination of athletic scholarships would mean fewer minority -- mostly black -- athletes. Though this would be true, at least for a while, it wouldn't necessarily mean fewer minority college students. There may be nothing that can be done about the vast sums of money NCAA sports are bringing in, but something can be done about how the money is spent.

Most colleges put most of their basketball and football money back into their sports programs. Eliminate athletic scholarships and the money saved could go toward putting minority students in school.

Then, the millions brought in by college students would at least benefit college students. Instead of sending thousands of uneducated jocks out to face a hostile society every year, colleges would have the chance to send thousands of professionals into a society that needs them badly.

Allen Barra writes frequently about sports.

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