Thursday, September 27, 2012

The NCAA Crisis: Is it still a SCHOLARship if it's for athletics?

Let's continue to dwell in the Land of Make Believe.

If Title IX really were the source of the NCAA crisis, then, we would simply have to overturn it, and everything would be perfect, right?

In my opinion, it's not that simple. There's that minor thing called an economy and that minor thing called a university budget, and while I'm not arguing that Title IX does not play a role in universities' decisions, I find it a bit ridiculous to scapegoat the amendment. What is more, I find it strange that the Title IX reformers, who ostensibly are concerned with fairness in sports, are not directing some of their anger at the NCAA.

Yes, the NCAA. Believe it or not, college sports teams cannot just do whatever they want. Let me explain.

If Cartman were a university, which university would he be?

Title IX has its own rules regarding grants-in-aid. In short, the piece of legislation dictates that universities "must provide reasonable opportunities for [athletic grants-in-aid] for members of each sex in proportion to the number of students of each sex participating in interscholastic or intercollegiate athletics." In other words, if 54% of the athletes are female, then, they should receive 54% of the scholarship money granted for athletic performance.

I've been reading a lot about Title IX lately, and so far, I have not heard anyone complain about this rule. The problem, for many legal scholars and journalists, seems to be the NCAA's rules.

In 1956 the NCAA approved of full-cost-of-attendance scholarships, and by the 1970s, universities were abusing them. The story goes that a University of Pittsburgh coach gave 90 scholarships to freshmen football players in 1973, and in 1977, the Panthers won the national championship. In an effort to prevent coaches from hoarding scholarship money, the NCAA placed a limit on the number of scholarships permitted for each team, both male and female.

This is not a complete list.

The NCAA divides scholarships into "head-count" scholarships and "equivalency" scholarships. Head-count sports are basically full-ride sports. All athletes who receive a grant-in-aid must receive a full scholarship. In the short list above, these include:

  • Men's basketball
  • Men's football
  • Women's Gymnastics
  • Women's Volleyball
  • Women's Basketball
The rest, then, are equivalency sports. Meaning: a partial scholarship can be awarded, and a full scholarship can be divided among two or more athletes. In the chart above, these include:

  • Men's gymnastics
  • Men's rowing
  • Men's swimming/diving
  • Women's rowing
  • Women's swimming/diving
Let's leave aside the question of fairness for a moment and think about how this quota system makes a coach's job rather hellish.

Imagine that you are the head coach of a men's gymnastics program that has won the NCAA Championship for two years in a row. You have 5 recruits who really want to go to your school, but you only have the equivalent of 2 scholarships to give out. (The other 4.3 are split among your other gymnasts.) How do you split up the remaining money? Do you give each student-athlete a partial scholarship? Do you give two of them full scholarships and say, "Too bad, so sad," to the rest of them?

Coaches can sidestep this issue if some of their athletes excel academically. A gymnast's academic scholarships do not count as athletic grant-in-aid provided that:
  • His academic honors are considered part of an institution's normal financial aid package. AND
  • One of the following:
    • He was in the top 10% of his high school class or had a cumulative GPA of a 3.5 or higher in high school. OR
    • He scored a 105 or higher on the ACT or a 1200 or higher on the SAT (critical reading and math)
Even that becomes difficult. How do you recruit the academically gifted students? Do you try to recruit students who are decent athletes and exceptional students? Do you give those students gymnastics scholarship money even though they are receiving other institutional support? If you don't give them gymnastics grant-in-aid, what incentive do they have to stay on the team? They have to maintain a certain GPA in order to keep their scholarships, and between practices and traveling, that isn't easy.

Can you see why being a men's collegiate gymnastics coach kind of sucks? Not only do you have to find the talent, but you have to find a way to make it work financially.

Now, imagine that you are a parent. Have you looked at how expensive college is?

Tuition and fees (2012-13) for a few of the remaining universities with men's gymnastics programs

Let's imagine that you're living Sugar Land, TX. Your son has received an offer to attend Michigan and compete as a Wolverine. He has received a 1/3 scholarship, and that's all the institutional support he would receive.

From a financial perspective, is it worth it? Do you try to urge him to go to UT-Austin or a cheaper school without an NCAA varsity gymnastics program? $26,000 a year in loans adds up. If I were you, I'd be thinking, "What does he have to do to declare residency in Michigan?"

So... the NCAA scholarship restrictions led to the elimination of men's gymnastics programs?

No, that's not what I am trying to say. This post is a parentheses in the series. It doesn't exactly fit, but I think it is important to mention. Partly because I don't know how many gymnastics fans know about these scholarship restrictions. Partly because it irks me that reformers who concern themselves with fairness and quota systems aren't descrying the NCAA's policies. Partly because, the way I see it, the NCAA is playing into the money game that I described yesterday.

On the men's side, the NCAA's grant-in-aid system has a remarkable correlation. The head-count sports are also the ones that make the NCAA the most amount of money. CBS paid $6 billion for an 11-year March Madness contract. ESPN pays $125 million annually for the BCS Championship Game, the Fiesta Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl. ABC pays $30 million annually for the Rose Bowl.

That's a lot of money.

Granted, much of the NCAA's TV revenue is distributed among the Division I universities. It's not like the NCAA is pocketing all of the cash. That said, there seems to be a very business-like logic behind all of this. The majority of the NCAA's income comes from these big basketball and football TV contracts, and if basketball and football are bringing home the bacon for the organization, then, those programs should reap the rewards, right? One way to favor those programs is by ensuring that they have enough players on full-ride scholarships to field a team.

Indeed, the NCAA does not say that colleges must supply full-ride scholarships to their players. But, if you don't offer as many full-rides as possible, how else are are colleges going to get the best recruits? And without the best recruits, how else are you going to participate in the on-going race to make the most money?

My argument would be stronger if I had data to prove that college football and basketball teams are using their allotted scholarship money. I'm not afraid to admit that. However, when you look at the numbers, it is hard to believe otherwise. Football teams average 110 players with 85 scholarship slots. Basketball teams average 15 players with 13 scholarship slots.

Of those two number sets, the one for basketball seem more reasonable to me. 5 players can be on the court at the same time, and it would make sense to have about 3 players for each position in case of injury. Football, on the other hand, is disproportional. There are, what, 11 offensive players and 11 defensive players. That's 22 players, and let's add a kicker for a total of 23. If they had 3 players for each position, that would be a total of 69 players. Do football teams really need 85 scholarship spots?

Here's another way to look at it: For football, on average, there's 1 full ride for every 1.3 athletes on a team. For basketball, there's 1 full ride scholarship for every 1.15 athletes. For men's gymnastics, there's 1 full ride for every 2.95 athletes.

How fair is that? Why aren't more college gym fans complaining about that?

"Fun" fact: The first intercollegiate sporting event in America was a boat race in 1852 between Harvard and Yale, and for several decades, crew was the premiere intercollegiate sport.  Today, men's crew is even worse off than men's gymnastics. Crew teams can give a grand total of $0 in athletics grant-in-aid.

I realize that, once again, I am not talking much about women's sports. If you'd like a good article on the issue, check out Peter Keating's piece on


  1. Always interesting to read this, coming from the UK where as far as I know athletic scholarships don't exist. That said I go to Cambridge, where it's an open secret that sportsmen can get an easy ride academically (if not financially) but in one sport only: rowing! In fact the Oxford/Cambridge Varsity Boat Race is the only televised intercollegiate sporting event in the country. Rowing is by FAR the most popular sport at Cambridge; I had no idea its fate was so dire across the pond!
    P.s. CU does have a gymnastics club, but I believe it's self-funded and self-coached.

    1. The Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race served as the model for the Harvard/Yale race, and in the U.S., they used professional ringers. Meaning: The participants in the boat race were not students at Harvard or Yale, and they were paid for their efforts. When (American) football took over decades later, the tradition of professional ringers continued.

      If you're interested in the topic, check out Murray Sperber's chapter "College Sports, Inc." in the book Buying In or Selling Out.

    2. I see - while the OX/Cam rowers aren't ringers per se, they are scouted from all over the world and are admitted to the university more for their athletic than their academic prowess.
      I think nowadays they can't get away with admitting total idiots just for their thigh-circumference (which is why neither team is actually very competitive nationally, despite the Boat Race being billed as some kind of clash of the Titans) but you'll still find a few studying 'Land Economy', a king of bizarre bogus degree originally devised to teach rich heirs how to manage their country estates.

  2. About the only way to completely bypass the NCAA is to move college MAG to NAIA schools, where there are no scholarship limitations... anything goes! More realistically, though, just how would opening up MAG scholarships to 12 roster spots screw things up for Title IX? There are only 17 D-1 programs, for crying out loud. If it happened without any announcement, nobody would even notice... except for college MAG fans. If any of the Title IX ninnies were to bitch about it, it would prove once & for all how selfish & petty they can be.