Last week, ESPN agreed to pay the Atlantic Coast Conference $3.6 billion to televise its athletic events through 2026-27. The ACC will earn those billions thanks to the free labor of Duke basketball players and Miami football players. Is there any rational argument that these unpaid performers shouldn’t get a chunk of that TV cash?
Back in September, Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis tried to mount such an argument. In response to Taylor Branch’s Atlantic polemic "The Shame of College Sports,” Davis wrote that it’s “indisputably untrue” that college athletes aren’t paid. “Student-athletes earn free tuition, which over the course of four years can exceed $200,000,” he wrote.
If you buy that star athletes are compensated with a valuable education, consider this complicating fact: An athletic scholarship is not a four-year educational guarantee. What few college sports fans—and not enough college recruits—realize is that a university can yank that scholarship after one, two, or three years without cause. Coach doesn’t like you? He’s free to cut you loose. Sitting the bench? You could lose your free ride to a new recruit.
Some schools have recognized that one-year scholarships, renewable at the school’s pleasure, are morally indefensible. The majority of Big Ten schools, as well as Auburn and Florida, announced earlier this year that they’ve started giving incoming athletes four-year guarantees. But if you think the nation’s sports powers are disposed to do the right thing, you don’t know college sports.
Earlier this year, the NCAA held a vote on whether to end its ban on multiyear scholarships, which had been in place since 1973. Of the 330 schools that cast a ballot, 205 voted against four-year scholarships, including football titans Texas, LSU, and Alabama. Despite that majority vote, the tyranny of the one-year scholarship is no more—though 62.1 percent of schools voted for the one-year status quo, a supermajority of 62.5 percent was needed to maintain the ban on four-year scholarships. The schools don’t want it, but four-year athletic grants-in-aid are now permissible.
According to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, some schools opposed multiyear scholarships because they could “[reduce] the flexibility of a new coach to get rid of players who didn't fit his style.” Remember that line the next time an athletic director bloviates on the glories of amateurism and the student-athlete: Your athletic ability is a ticket to a free education, so long as the new guy in charge doesn’t want to run the spread offense.
A Division I athlete, meanwhile, has no control of his own destiny. If he wants to transfer to another D-I school, he must sit out at least one year—and if his current school blocks his release, he has to sit out two years. College athletes are unpaid workers whose movements are strictly controlled by their employers. That’s not amateur sports. That’s something close to indentured athletic servitude.
To be clear, this new NCAA measure doesn’t require any school to give four-year scholarships—it merely gives them the option to do so. That makes the “no” votes of Alabama, LSU, et al., even more appalling. Though some smaller schools cried poor, claiming four-year deals would bust their athletic budgets, the football powerhouses can make no such claim. As CBSSports.com’s Jerry Hinnen explains, “In short: because these schools don't want to promise their athletes a full four-year college education, they've decided the athletes at other schools shouldn't have the benefit of that promise, either.”
In the days before Alabama voted against guaranteeing college athletes a four-year education, the school’s football coach Nick Saban said he resented the implications of the new NCAA measure. “I think this is some people’s cynical approach to think that coaches don’t have the best interest of the young people that they coach in mind,” Saban said.
My response to Mr. Saban: If you’re not cynical about major college football, then you’re either willfully stupid or the host of an ESPN studio show.