In 1941, the Gainesville Times reports, an Alabama grad decried the school’s tactic of stockpiling potential football talent, then “[running] hundreds of players off either by flunking them out or forcing them to quit.” Replace “hundreds” with “dozens” and you’ve got the current Alabama football program. Division I football teams are allowed to have 85 players on scholarship. When a surfeit of new talent comes in, old players must get the boot to ensure the school doesn’t go over the limit.
As documented on oversigning.com, more than 20 players left the Alabama program by choice or by force in 2010 and 2011. One of the school’s go-to techniques is the “medical scholarship.” Between 2007 and 2010, Alabama offloaded at least 12 athletes for medical reasons, including at least two who later told the Wall Street Journal that they were healthy enough to play. (On the bright side: Though a player on medical scholarship gets kicked off the team, he does continue to receive financial aid to finish school.) Another roster management strategy, seen often at Alabama, LSU, and other SEC schools, is to rescind a promised scholarship just before the student-athlete’s freshman year. And sometimes, as in the case of LSU’s Chris Garrett and Miami’s Steven Wesley, a veteran player loses his scholarship simply because the coaching staff changes its mind and doesn’t think he’s good enough.
Saban claims he’s “never gotten rid of a player because of his physical ability.” I don’t believe him, but maybe that’s just because I’m a cynical person. I’m also cynical about Saban’s vow, in the immediate aftermath of Alabama’s failed attempt to quash four-year scholarships, that the school will start giving them out in 2013. After all, the skeptic will note, a school like Alabama will be at a recruiting disadvantage if it offers a worse deal than its rivals. And the school can always find a way to get guys to leave. An all-powerful coach can simply kick a player off the squad for “violating a team rule.” Or he can tell a wide receiver that he can stay if he wants, but he’ll never get off the bench. Voilà—the benchwarmer will leave of his own free will.
There’s some hope that the courts will recognize that one-year scholarships are unjust. Two years ago, the Justice Department met with the NCAA to discuss the organization’s scholarship policies, but nothing has come of that meeting to date. And in 2010, Joseph Agnew filed an antitrust suit against the NCAA after Rice University revoked his football scholarship before his senior year. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed the suit, however, arguing that it was bound by an earlier precedent. Agnew has since appealed. (Optimists should read this excellent note in the William & Mary Business Law Review, in which Neil Gibson argues that “despite the … unfavorable ruling in Agnew v. NCAA, a Sherman Act claim against the NCAA linking bachelor’s degrees and scholarships could be legally viable.”)
The best high-school basketball and football players could also follow DeMarcus Cousins’ lead. In 2008, the prized recruit (and now NBA star) demanded that the University of Alabama-Birmingham assure him, in writing, that he’d be allowed to transfer without penalty if the coach he wanted to play for, Mike Davis, left the school. (Coaches, unlike their unpaid charges, are allowed to switch schools without penalty.) UAB refused, so Cousins went to Kentucky instead.
But the vast majority of wannabe college athletes don’t have Cousins’ strong bargaining position. Rather, they serve at the whim of coaches like Nick Saban and Tennessee’s Derek Dooley. "We forget this is a contract, a two-way street," Dooley said in February, explaining why he doesn’t like multiyear scholarships. "I think it's humorous that the academic institution can give an academic scholarship and take it away when a student doesn't perform at a certain GPA level, but it's absolutely the worst thing you can do as a coach—it's so wrong what you do to these young people—when he doesn't do what he's supposed to do."
Nothing about Dooley’s statement is true, though it is unintentionally revelatory. Four-year scholarships won’t prevent a coach from kicking a miscreant off the team. And the scholarship papers that student-athletes sign are the definition of a one-way street—an invitation for the coach to treat his players like pieces on a game board. I appreciate, though, the analogy to a student who “doesn’t perform at a certain GPA level.” Though it’s socially unacceptable to say so out loud, what coaches really want is the ability to take away athletic scholarships when players don’t perform at a certain athletic level. After all, that’s what they’re supposed to do.