Are college student-athletes playing ball or being played?

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

A long-held belief that a college student-athlete gets a “full ride” or a “free ride” in which his or her college expenses are fully paid is debunked in a recent report that sheds light on the actual financial circumstances of many athletic scholarship recipients.

Whatever a scholarship does not cover, in fact, creates a “shortfall” for the student-athlete that can approach or exceed tuition costs, says the “Ithaca College/National College Players Association Scholarship Shortfall Study” released October 27. This shortfall is the difference between scholarship awards and the actual educational expenses (tuition, student fees, room and board and books) and other costs not covered by scholarships.

“I don’t think the average fan really understands that it [attending college on an athletic scholarship] is not as free as people think it is, and that the NCAA rules are structured in such a way that creates this gap,” notes Ithaca (N.Y.) College Sport Management and Media Professor and Graduate Chair Ellen Staurowsky during an exclusive phone interview with the MSR.

The NCAA uses the following terms in determining how much a scholarship will be:
• Full grant-in-aid: financial aid that consists of tuition and fees, room and board, and required course-related books.

• Cost of attendance (COA): using federal regulations, the amount calculated that includes the total cost of tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other expenses related to attending the institution.

• Calculation of cost of attendance: The institution must calculate the cost of attendance for student-athletes based on the school’s cost of attendance policies used for all students in general.

This refers to such “headcount sports” as football, men’s and women’s basketball, and volleyball. For non-headcount sports (i.e., track, cross-country and baseball), the particular program splits the scholarship pool of money in any way they want for their athletes.

Staurowsky, a former East Coast small-college coach and athletic director, used data that colleges report to the U.S. Department of Education, and she used the following equation to do her calculations: Cost of attendance minus full scholarship equals shortfall.

The average estimated scholarship shortfall for the 2009-10 academic year was $2,951 per year, which according to the study would leave a student on a full scholarship with a debt of $11,804 over a four-year period. The shortfall range was as low as $200 and as high as $10,962 per year.

It listed U of M student-athletes’ shortfall at $2,194. According to school spokesman Garry Bowman, Gopher in-state student-athletes receive $21,000 per semester; out-state athletes receive $25,000 a semester.

Minnesota “does a really good job” in covering the athlete’s basic expenses, claims Bowman. “They are not going to live like kings, but we [do] cover the cost of [the] scholarship.”

The athlete might be better off with a music scholarship, since those students are allowed to work during school, while NCAA rules don’t allow the same for student-athletes. Meanwhile, many head coaches have incentive bonuses in their contracts based on wins.

“If you look at the fact [that] it is the athletes who are winning those games and making it possible for that coach to get that incentive, then it seems like that’s a revenue stream [where] you could possibly look to fix this problem” of shortfalls, notes Staurowsky.

While some argue that student-athletes are getting a free ride, are they in reality being taken for a ride?

The professor says her study’s main purpose is “myth busting,” especially the one about an athlete’s four-year scholarship. The scholarship is actually for one year at a time, “which clearly puts power in the hands of the coaches and not in the hands of the athletes,” Staurowsky points out.

Former Rice football player Joseph Agnew has sued the NCAA over its one-year scholarship rule. He played two seasons and was injured in his sophomore year before coaches told him in 2007 that his scholarship would not be renewed.

I also saw this happen to a friend during my college days in the late 1970s.

He was a starting running back on the school’s football team, but he was told by coaches near the end of his sophomore year that he would have to choose between a required pre-med class and spring practices because of a time conflict.

When he chose the former over the latter, my friend was subsequently told that his scholarship was revoked. Since he was from out of the state, he eventually had to leave school because he could no longer afford it.

“The primary motivation [behind this study] is to create a vehicle for athletes to have a better idea of what they’re in for, so that they can ask informed questions when they are being recruited,” says Staurowsky.

The scholarship shortfall issue is just one of several issues that she believes need urgent attention. Another that is not being talked about is how college athletes are not getting compensated for their likeness being used in video games.

“It’s getting real obvious who is getting paid and who is not getting paid,” says Staurowsky.

Next week: A West Coast-based professor proposes several ways to change collegiate sports.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to