Real Scholarships Need to Make a Comeback
College athletes should be paid with multiyear scholarships
April 2, 2013
I have always believed that colleges and universities that treat athletes like employees should have to pay them and provide other employment benefits. Under common law, an employee is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other's control in return for payment.
In the first half of the twentieth century, as college sport morphed into mass commercial entertainment, a market developed for skilled athletes. In the resulting recruiting frenzy, under-the-table payments became commonplace. In a desperate effort to restore sanity, the NCAA, in 1957, allowed schools to pay the room, board, tuition, and other fees of college athletes.
When I played football at Notre Dame the 1960s, I received one of these scholarships. I clearly remember coaches visiting my house and promising my parents, often in writing, that my grant was a four-year deal, even if I were injured or turned out to be a recruiting mistake. The message was that I was valued as a student, regardless of how things turned out on the athletic field.
In 1973, the NCAA made the biggest error in its legislative history when it replaced four-year scholarships with one-year renewable grants. By conditioning the renewal of financial aid on an athlete's contribution to team success, the scholarship became a contractual quid-pro-quo and coaches gained control over athletes not unlike that of employers over employees.
Because athletes fit the definition of employees, they are arguably entitled to the kinds of benefits that athletes receive in professional leagues like the NFL and the NBA. This seems only fair. However, I would like to propose another (far less expensive) solution to the payment problem that I think is in the best interests of athletes and the faculty that teach them.
Last year, the NCAA's leadership did the unthinkable when it rammed through legislation that gives universities the option to award multiyear scholarships like the one I was privileged to have at Notre Dame. What is needed is a national movement of faculty and others to support multiyear scholarships that extend to graduation (five year maximum).
These scholarships could still be canceled if athletes withdraw from sports voluntarily, fail to meet academic standards, or violate team rules, but they could not be canceled for injury or not living up to advanced billing as a recruit. A five-year scholarship is priceless if it leads to a real education.