I don’t think I’ve watched a full-length game of basketball since Michael Jordan retired, but for some reason I like reading about March Madness. It’s not so much the sport itself that interests me; rather, it’s the narratives. One of the more intriguing but unfortunate storylines has been that of University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware, whose serious leg injury has renewed debates about fair compensation and support for student-athletes.
As someone who has never attended a school with a strong sports culture, I’ve never quite understood the hoopla over Division I sports. Some of you reading this column might be thinking, “University of Chicago is a DIII school. Why should we care what happens at DI schools?” Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, it would be good to know that our tax dollars (though probably not amounting to much at this point in our lives) are supporting educational institutions that take their academic missions seriously. Second, some of us might attend or work at DI institutions in the future, or send our children there. Finally, one cannot deny the amount of cultural sway that elite college sports have. The Penn State sex abuse scandal was an extreme example of the damage that can ensue when people are willing to neglect the well-being of individuals in order to preserve the well-being of a team. Behavior that might be condemnable in nearly any other situation somehow becomes acceptable when a lot of power, fame, and glory are involved. Changing policies concerning student-athletes help to combat this corruption and send the message that the well-being of individuals matters, along with profits and success.
But not all reforms are good ones. A widely circulated cover story in The Atlantic last year, “The Shame of College Sports,” suggested reforming college sports by compensating college athletes beyond simply offering athletic scholarships because some programs, such as football or basketball, might earn millions each year for a school. I am not in favor of this plan because it would undermine women’s sports or the less mainstream sports that take in less revenue but nevertheless offer a good experience for undergraduates.
I am also generally not a big supporter of athletic scholarships. But I believe that, currently, student-athletes receiving athletic scholarships are under undue pressure relative to those receiving other scholarships. Even if athletic scholarships are offered alongside a variety of other merit scholarships, the renewal processes for merit and athletic scholarships are not equal. And that’s telling: The decision to initially award what we generally term “merit scholarships” (that is, scholarships for something other than playing college sports) can depend on a variety of considerations including grades, letters of recommendation, leadership, school activities, and community service. However, getting these tough-to-get scholarships renewed—scholarships I looked at during my senior year of high school, for example—generally only required “satisfactory progress” toward a degree, or a reasonable GPA cutoff, usually somewhere between 3.0 and 3.5.
In contrast, although the NCAA began allowing the option of multiyear scholarships in recent years, schools can choose to offer annual scholarships with renewal solely at the coach’s discretion, with standards of academic progress not given prominence. After Kevin Ware broke his leg during the NCAA tournament, journalists speculated about whether he would still receive scholarship money next year. Although we don’t really know anything about his specific circumstances, in general I think making multiyear scholarships standard would be fairer not only to student-athletes but to the rest of the student body as well. Athletic scholarships should have the same renewal conditions as any other merit scholarship—namely, making good progress toward a degree and not engaging in misconduct. A school might give a scholarship to a student in part for being active on his high school student government not because it necessarily expects him to serve the same role in college, but because it sees more general potential for leadership and extracurricular engagement. If schools really believe their own rhetoric about the greater good of sports programs, the same logic should apply to the scholarships awarded to student-athletes. If they do indeed foster teamwork, build leadership skills, and encourage diligence, then an athlete who for some reason is unable to play in subsequent seasons will still be an asset to the school. And if a school doesn’t believe that to be the case, then perhaps it ought to reexamine its values.