Longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader is in the news yet again. The four-time U.S. presidential candidate believes it’s time for college athletics to undergo an extreme makeover, and he’s more than happy to spread his message.
The League of Fans, a sports reform project founded by Nader to encourage social and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture, suggests that athletic scholarships should be eliminated as a way to “de-professionalize” college sports while also reducing the “win-at-all-costs” mentality found in high school sports.
“As we near the exciting conclusion of March Madness — which would more accurately be described as the 2011 NCAA Professional Basketball Championships — it’s time we step back and finally address the myth of amateurism surrounding big-time college football and basketball in this country,” says Nader’s proposal, released by the Associated Press on March 24, 2011. “By eliminating the athletic scholarship, and replacing it with need-based financial aid, we could de-professionalize college athletes, reestablish athletic departments as part of the educational institution, and be able to use the term ‘student-athlete’ without snickering.”
Nader believes that NCAA Division I sports have “increasingly mimicked professional sports over the past 25 years,” which causes many people to question whether today’s version of college sports contributes to educational values in any meaningful way.
College athletics and student athletes have always been a hot topic. After all, as ESPN/ABC studio analyst Jalen Rose points out in a Huffington Post Sports piece, every year the debate of whether or not college athletes should be paid for their talents gains more steam. Furthermore, select student athletes are constantly falling under scrutiny for receiving improper benefits from their schools or from pro team recruiters and agents.
Nader mentions the elusive athletic scholarships that many young athletes dream about receiving. Even though chances are slim because competition is stiff, many parents relentlessly push their children through middle school and high school sports programs, truly believing an athletic scholarship is their child’s only chance at college.
“An entire industry has developed in the youth sports arena — club teams, personal trainers, etc. — to prey on families’ dreams of an athletic scholarship. The lure of the elusive athletic scholarship is the primary — sometimes the only — marketing tool these youth sports entrepreneurs use,” Nader claims, reports the Associated Press.
According to Ken Reed, senior issues analyst for Nader’s League of Fans, “Clearly athletes on scholarship are pro athletes. Professional sports means ‘pay for play.’ Athletic scholarships are financial inducements to play sports at college. Basically, they are one-year contracts between an athlete and a coach. Coaches can literally fire athletes for poor performance or injury. As such, a scholarship athlete’s first priority in college is to play sports. Education is a secondary consideration. Paying for young people to come to college campuses to focus on sports – not education – is perverse.”
Nader and the League of Fans believe that the original intent of college athletics—real students interested in making sports part of their overall educational experience while on campus—is worth saving.
Nader’s suggestions? Integrate athletics into the educational mission of colleges and universities by eliminating athletic scholarships along with special admissions for college athletes, or openly acknowledge the professionalism in big-time college sports, which would include removing the tax-exempt status currently given to athletic departments, and make universities operate them as unrelated businesses.
The League of Fans feels that the first suggestion is best. The Drake Group, a national network of college faculty that have been advocates for academic integrity on college campuses and the educational welfare of athletes in college since 1999, also supports eliminating athletic scholarships.
In response to Nader’s recent statements, Drake Group president Jason Lanter says, “The Drake Group proposes reform through the enactment of multi-year scholarships, which would send a strong message that the NCAA, universities, and coaches are committed to athletes as students and not merely as commodities in a labor market.” The group suggests that colleges replace one-year renewable scholarships with need-based financial aid or with multiyear athletic scholarships that extend to graduation for a five year maximum.
Since 1973, the NCAA has banned colleges from offering scholarships for longer than one academic year. This current system of one-year renewable athletic scholarships gives coaches and athletic directors the opportunity to use factors directly related to athletics such as injury or lack of athletic performance to determine whether a student athlete’s financial aid will be renewed.
In 2010, former Rice University football player Joseph Agnew filed a class-action law suit against the NCAA. Agnew, who lost his athletic scholarship for his senior year, accuses the NCAA and its member schools of violating antitrust rules by limiting the number of scholarships — or “discounts” — that each team can provide. His lawsuit alleges that NCAA member institutions have “conspired to maintain the price of bachelor’s degrees for NCAA student-athletes at artificially high levels” by refusing to offer multi-year discounts and limiting the number of scholarships, reported the Houston Chronicle.
The NCAA publicly responded to Ralph Nader’s proposals on March 24, 2011:
“Mr. Nader’s proposal is off-base on so many fronts it is hard to know where to start. The 145,000 student-athletes who receive athletics related financial aid each year are in fact students first — as evidenced by the fact that in almost every demographic they graduate at higher percentages than their counterparts in the general student body. Moreover, less than two percent of them will ever play professional sports. The assertion that student-athletes who receive athletics aid are professionals defies logic — they are students, just like any other student on campus who receives a merit-based scholarship.”
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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