SAN ANTONIO—Only about 2 percent of high school athletes are offered even a small sports scholarship from a Division I or Division II college. As a result, many high school athletes who are realistic about their chances sometimes hope their speed and strength might win them a "leadership" or similarly euphemistic scholarship from one of the 444 Division III colleges (mostly expensive private schools) that aren't supposed to lure game-winners with money.
But that's not realistic either, says Eric M. Hartung, associate director of research for the NCAA.
The NCAA has figured out such dodges. It bars college coaches from even "indirectly influencing" scholarship decisions at Division III schools. That means a call, or even a wink, from a coach to a financial aid officer shouldn't improve a student's odds of winning a grant. "The coach can tell the student who to call" in the financial aid office to apply for aid, "but that's it," Hartung said.
To keep everyone honest, the NCAA requires each Division III school to report how much money it gives to students who play sports and how much money it gives to nonathletes. Those numbers show that athletes at Division III schools, on average, aren't getting significantly more money than nonathletes. Sports players make up 21 percent of the student body at Division III schools, he said. In recent years, the NCAA has found that athletes receive 22 percent of all the scholarship dollars handed out by Division III schools.
If a Division III university offers a "leadership" scholarship, it cannot consider factors such as team captainship, Hartung said. As a result, he said, some colleges are now telling applicants not to include athletic accomplishments on such scholarship applications.
The NCAA has even cracked down on seemingly innocuous scholarship programs such as those targeted at Canadians. At one school, a disproportionate number of the Canadians happened to play hockey, so the NCAA objected, Hartung said.
Hartung acknowledges these rules can be very tough on coaches, who tend to be competitive and want to attract the best athletes. And it can be tough on students who are considering several offers and want to leverage their talents to reduce the cost of tuition.
Despite the seemingly watertight rules and scrutiny, there is a little wiggle room. And a few schools have been wriggling toward—and perhaps beyond—the rule limits.
The NCAA generally doesn't start an investigation of scholarship violations unless the school's reports raise a flag, such as showing that athletes as a group receive about 8 percent more than nonathletes. Would the NCAA investigate a college that, say, gave athletes, on average, about 5 percent more than other students? Probably not, Hartung says. But he said he didn't think colleges were so calculating and nefarious as to systematically tweak their scholarships just a little less than the NCAA would notice.
And an investigation by itself wouldn't necessarily cause problems for schools, since colleges can clear themselves by showing that they had good reasons for any disparities. They also must show the NCAA that they provide no systematic advantage for players, such as having coaches sit on scholarship committees.
A handful of schools have been found to have violated the rules. But most of the violations were judged to be "inadvertent," so the NCAA settled the probes privately and simply required the schools to prove that they had fixed their scholarship systems.
In August, however, the NCAA will rule on three Division III schools that are being investigated for systematically giving more scholarship money to athletes. If determined to have committed "major," or willful, violations, the NCAA will issue press releases naming the colleges and describing the violations. Hartung said the NCAA will decide next month whether any additional punishment is required. But, he said, NCAA members have urged the association to limit the punishment to the public shaming.