Student Achievement

Will Ralph Nader’s Goal of Abolishing Athletic Scholarships Help K-12, College Sports?

By Bryan Toporek — March 28, 2011 5 min read
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Saying he wants to “deprofessionalize” college athletics, former presidential candidate Ralph Nader is proposing the elimination of athletic scholarships for college students.

The consumer activist believes “it’s time we step back and finally address the myth of amateurism surrounding big-time college football and basketball in this country” by replacing athletic scholarships with need-based financial aid.

Nader called the proposal the first initiative for his newly reactivated League of Fans, a sports-reform project he founded. (Nader originally formed a now-defunct association called FANS—the Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports in the 1970s, then founded the League of Fans in 2001.)

In the proposal, he suggests that colleges either scrap athletic scholarships and integrate athletics into the educational mission, or “openly acknowledge the professionalism in big-time college sports, remove the tax-exempt status currently given to athletic departments, and make universities operate them as unrelated businesses.”

And Nader even managed to tie his ideas back to K-12 sports, saying, “An entire industry has developed in the youth-sports arena—club teams, personal trainers, etc.—to prey on families’ dreams of an athletic scholarship,” he said. “The lure of the elusive athletic scholarship is the primary—sometimes the only—marketing tool these youth-sports entrepreneurs use.” Without athletic scholarships, Nader suggests, the “win-at-all-costs” mentality in high school sports could become a thing of the past. (And, as I wrote about last week, many adults echo his concerns about how much winning is stressed in youth sports.)

The proposal echoes a number of points previously recommended by the Drake Group, an organization whose mission revolves around “defend[ing] academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college-sport industry.

In May 2006, the Drake Group made Nader’s exact same fundamental suggestion: Colleges should eliminate athletic scholarships in favor of need-based aid.

“The contract between the college athlete and the institution no longer represents the ‘amateur’ ideal of ‘pay (scholarship) for education’ when it is plain to everyone—coaches, fans, faculty members, media, and especially the athletes—that they are on the campus, first and foremost, to play ball,” the proposal stated. “That, by any definition, is ‘pay for play.’ ”

Having tutored a few student-athletes during my years at Georgetown, I believe it’s impossible to deny that some collegiate athletes do prioritize their athletic career over their academic career. But is that any different from when college students on academic scholarships prioritize other extracurricular activities or jobs over schoolwork?

“Athletic scholarships are financial inducements to play sports at college,” said Ken Reed, senior issues analyst for League of Fans. “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.”

Much like the Drake Group’s statements, Reed managed to incorporate elements of truth in what he said—coaches can revoke athletic scholarships every year, as athletic scholarships technically only run on a year-to-year basis. Again, though ... how is that any different from a student with an academic scholarship? Either scholarship, academic or athletic, can be revoked if the student doesn’t meet minimum academic requirements.

Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president of communications, bristled at Nader’s proposal. In a post on the NCAA’s website, he said, “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.”

Ultimately, Nader’s proposition to remove all athletic scholarships may amount to using a sledgehammer to crack open a nut. ESPN’s Jay Bilas summarized what may be the fundamental problem with Nader’s proposal in 139 characters on Thursday night via Twitter.

“Ralph Nader calls for end of athletic schollys. Nader and NCAA are both wrong. The principle of amateurism is the real issue, not schollys.”

Go back and re-read the first quote from Nader: “It’s time we step back and finally address the myth of amateurism surrounding big-time college football and basketball (ed. note: emphasis added) in this country.” He doesn’t say there’s an overall amateurism issue plaguing college athletics—the problem resides strictly with college athletics’ two main moneymakers. So, why punish all college athletes for the actions of a select group? Sledgehammer, meet nut.

If Nader truly wanted to tackle the issue of jeopardized amateurism for student-athletes, he’d take his fight away from the NCAA and bring it down to the middle/high school levels. It’s not like the problem suddenly appears once the student-athletes arrive on their college campuses, after all.

It’s quite remarkable that the Amateur Athletic Union avoided any blame in this situation, as it’s a nonprofit entity that oversees national youth competitions in more than 25 sports. The organization provides free education for coaches and “looks forward as being the trendsetter in coach education in years to come,” yet a sitewide search for “academics” on the AAU website generates zero results. Compare that with the NCAA, which has a tab devoted specifically to academics on its website.

Granted, the missions of the organizations differ significantly—the NCAA refers to itself as a nonprofit educational association, while the AAU is “dedicated exclusively to the promotion and development of amateur sports and physical-fitness programs.” But is it logical to suggest that the underemphasis on education for student-athletes begins at the AAU level of competition, and only continues to fester as the student-athletes move on to collegiate sports?

That’s not to say the AAU should start mandating a minimum GPA for student-athletes. Knowing that high schools across the country calculate GPA differently, the AAU can’t realistically be expected to set a GPA standard for its young athletes.

That said, why stop with coaches’ education? Why not make it mandatory for all AAU coaches to stress the importance of schoolwork and academic success to young athletes? After all, less than 2 percent of NCAA Division I athletes go on to professional careers in their respective sports.

Punishing the entirety of collegiate student-athletes for the perceived wrongs of college football and men’s basketball players might prove to be nothing short of foolhardy. And placing the blame of student-athletes’ jeopardized amateurism on the colleges handing out athletic scholarships could be construed as missing the point—that this battle begins at a far earlier age.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.