Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Future of College Football Scholarships and Amateurism

I wrote this for my JOMC 118 class (Ethical Issues and Sports Communication) during the fall of my senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Sweeney was a fair and interesting teacher. He was non-biased to the point where you wondered what his opinion really was, and he brought well-known alumni to class, such as Stuart Scott.

College and athletics have been a part of American culture for about 150 years. During this time, sports have grown into big businesses at some schools, especially with the top Division IA schools. Controversy over academic performance, recruitment, scholarships, revenue and media attention has sparked interest in the last half century.

Some people say sports has no place in college, and that academics should be the major concern. The idea of eliminating athletics from colleges or separating the two may seem inconceivable today not just because of the rules and laws made by the NCAA, but because sports has been a part of our colleges for so long. “Anyone who wants to claim that sports has no place in a college or university is quickly going to run headlong into both the insatiable appetite for sports that is evident in our daily lives – and the reality of history,” said authors James Shulman and William Bowen. (The Game of Life, 5).

Popularity in college football’s popularity began to rise in the late 1800s with its physical style of play. Before the turn of the century, about 40,000 fans watched the college championship game played in New York City on Thanksgiving. (The Game of Life, 6).

The seriousness of college sports was obvious by the time Howard Savage did a study in 1929 that was authorized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He found that college sports were no longer student-run clubs, but rather institutionally managed. Today, athletic departments are in charge of their own budgets, staff and in many ways policing themselves. The questions Savage raised are still meaningful today, such as: Should financial aid be given to players based on athletic performance?; How should athletic facilities be paid for?; and the role of boosters for an athletic program. (The Game of Life, 8).

The media and fan attention has not diminished over the years. Today, college football is highly popular while facing much scrutiny. Alabama is an example of a college football dynasty that since winning the national title in 1992, has faced two NCAA sanctions, including a three-year bowl ban and loss of 34 scholarships. Several players and coaches have both been found guilty of NCAA violations. Soon-to-be coach Mike Price was fired on May 3 after he allegedly brought a stripper back to his hotel and ran up an expensive room service order at his hotel room the night of a golf tournament in Pensacola, Fla. To show that college football is more than an amateur game, USA Today writer Kelly Whiteside wrote, “when Price addressed the ‘Bama Nation’ after he was fired, 14 television cameras formed a tight ring around the podium. The state’s television and radio stations aired the day’s events live, describing the scene as if it were a State of the Union address: ‘Mike Price is walking down the stairs, coming into the room, flanked by his wife and two sons. He approaches the podium...’” (Kelly Whiteside, USA Today, May 5, 2003).

Before college
Parents and children are learning, if they don’t already know, that specializing and concentrating on one sport at an early age can possibly become an athletic scholarship when a child reaches college. With travel and AAU teams, the way games are played are more like minor leagues than recreational sports.

In a study involving several Division 1A public universities, the number of multiple-sport male athletes has dropped from 10 percent in 1951 to five percent in 1976 to one percent by 1989. This trend was also true for private universities during the same time period. (The Game of Life, 26-27).

“It is that children at (age) 10 also reach a sporting crossroads ... whereas eight- and nine-year-olds are conformists and cultivators of wide-ranging interests, at 10 kids might delve deeply into their passions but have fewer of them,” says sports writer Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 6, 2003. “It’s the age at which a child is likely to either set sports aside or choose to throw himself into them – or into one sport,” One of these examples that Wolff points out is Cooper Moseley, a star pitcher from Alabama who played in 127 games in 2001 at age 10.

Today, many kids like Moseley have their minds set on playing professional sports. For these kids, it’s not just a game.

Even though many football players were paid for their athletic ability, athletic scholarships were against the rules until 1956, when they became legal in college sports. (The Game of Life, 12-13). By the early 1990s, the NCAA reduced the number of football scholarships from 95 to 85. For football players at UNC, scholarships include tuition fees, room and board and books, said Lisa Deibler, director of compliance in her sixth year at UNC. For these athletes, the meal plan includes two meals on the training table (breakfast for any players and dinner just for scholarship players), she said. Then the scholarship players are all given the same amount of money for the remaining amount of meals each month, which is usually about $300 per person, Deibler said.

Scholarships are renewed on a yearly basis, but if an athlete shows up to practice and meets academic requirements his scholarship will most likely be renewed each of his four years or five years. In-state football players count as a full-scholarship, but their tuition is less, Deibler said. There are no partial scholarships unless a player joins the team during the middle of the year which is rare, she said.

Recruiting is a part of college football. Recruitment and the knowledge of the prep and even junior high talent pool are so widespread these days that the idea of having a walk-on or relatively unknown player make a significant contribution is virtually unheard of.

Still, there is no doubt that some players have received money or “gifts” while being recruited at some colleges each year.

“When we hear those things, we look into them,” Deibler said about rumors of a football player with an expensive car, etc. “But there’s never been a time in my memory that we’ve unearthed a problem with that. There’s usually a reasonable explanation for things like that. Or things just get blown out of proportion and you’re not hearing the truth.”

Rick Steinbacher, UNC assistant athletic director for football operations, is in charge of recruiting football players. “Myself and any coach that handles recruiting, anybody that does anything with recruiting on our staff has to pass an NCAA test that certifies you have working knowledge of NCAA rules relevant to recruiting,” said Steinbacher, who is allowed six visits per recruit whether on or off-campus and can only make one phone call a week per prospect. “Our practice at Carolina for years, our reputation, is we don’t break rules for someone. Has a recruit asked us for things we wouldn’t do? Yes, that’s happened, but not very much. Right away they get a quick ‘no.’”

Whether an athlete is involved in illegal recruitment or not, recruiting influences players’ decisions. Several studies done by the Cooperative Institutional Research program (CIRP) survey showed that by 1989, a majority of athletes in high profile sports (basketball, football, hockey) said being recruited had played a role in which college they attended. (The Game of Life, 38).

Steinbacher says at UNC, coaches ask three questions about a recruit: Do they have athletic ability or talent to help win an ACC title?; Are they academically qualified?; Do they have the right character for a player on our team?

While some people argue that athletes have a better chance of being accepted by a college than non-athletes, this advantage may also pertain to the children of alumni. These two groups of students put pressure on admissions. But at UNC, admissions likely look at more students applying whose relatives were alumni than they look at the number of athletes applying. So in retrospect admissions might have to struggle with the fact of letting a student in because his parents went to a certain college more often than deciding whether to allow an athlete to be accepted. At a small school like Williams, it may be the opposite.

Still, being an athlete often works in a student’s favor when trying to gain admittance to his college of choice. A study involving just male athletes at non-scholarship schools showed they have a 48 percent advantage of being accepted over non-athletes, while minority male students only have a 18 percent advantage in being accepted. (The Game of Life, 40-41).

The admission of both male and female athletes has continued to increase from 1976 to 1989 to 1999. (The Game of Life, 260). At UNC, there are minimum requirements for football players no matter how well they performed in high school, Deibler said.

“Generally at the bare minimum, for admissions to even look at a kid, they’re going to need at least a 2.5 in the core courses and a 900 (SAT score),” she said about football prospects at UNC. “And this is speaking in general terms. There’s always an exception. Anywhere below that, it is going to be near impossible for the coaches to get them in.”

Whether accepted or not, all high school athletes have to meet certain NCAA criteria before they can be considered for college admissions. NCAA requirement for participation in college athletics has become stricter during the last 30 years. To be eligible to play in college, high school students had to graduate with a 2.0 GPA, which was required from 1973 to 1986. Then came a minimum SAT requirement in 1986. Athletes had to score at least 700 on the SAT with a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses, which lasted until 1992. (The Game of Life, 13).

The requirements for athletes who enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 2003 or the fall of 2004 are complex because of recent changes the NCAA has made, Deibler said. These athletes can meet the old standard, which was 13 core courses and a GPA scale that correlated to a student’s SAT score, or the new standard, which requires 14 core courses with a complete sliding scale that correlates GPA and SAT score, she said. For athletes who enroll as freshman in 2005, they will have to meet just the new standard. Before this recent change, athletes had to have at least an 820 SAT and a 2.5 GPA. The new scale allows students who scored below an 820 to get into college. According to Deibler, the new scale allows an athlete to score a 400 on the SAT if they have a 3.5 GPA or higher. This new scale also requires students to get at least a 1010 on the SAT if they have a 2.0 GPA, the minimum GPA allowed to participate in college. The SAT score requirement gets higher as the student GPA falls, and increases the lower the GPA with 400 and 1010 as the two extremes. Deibler said the new standard may create some problems, but that it must be in place for a while before judging it.

“Personally, I have some concerns about how a student who earns a 3.55 in high school would only score a 400 on the SAT,” Deibler said. “And I think in some cases it puts pressure on high school teachers and high school administrators to get the kids with the lower test scores to the higher GPA so that they can qualify.”

She said that a lot of schools may not accept a person with a 400 SAT score even if they are eligible because there are stricter requirements once in college for athletes who scored low academically in high school. She said this includes a certain GPA and a greater amount of course hours required per semester.

Male students in high profile sports (basketball, football, hockey) scored lower on their SAT scores than male students at large, according to a study done in 1989. In fact, at Division IA public universities, the SAT scores averaged out to be: 1154 for male students at large and 917 for high profile male athletes. (The Game of Life, 44).

A study by the same group of researchers showed that while the Ivy League colleges narrowed the gap in SAT scores between high profile athletes and students at large from 1976 to 1989, other colleges did not. According to authors Shulman and Bowen in The Game of Life, “liberal art’s colleges...became appreciably more selective over the course of the 1980s, but the mean score of their football, hockey, and basketball players actually declined by three points over this period.” These authors said the test scores at the Ivy League had narrowed from a 149 difference in 1976 to a 125 difference in 1989, while the liberal art’s colleges increased the gap over that time period from 99 to 135. (The Game of Life, 46-47).

These authors summed up their finds by writing, “The athletes at these selective schools are clearly smart people. Nevertheless, there are differences in pre-collegiate academic preparation between athletes and their classmates, and these differences have generally become much more pronounced over time. These patterns of difference in academic preparation are clear at every level of play and in sports of many kinds, not simply in the High Profile programs at the Division IA schools.” (The Game of Life, 47, 50).

College life and athletics

An important question is whether this difference in performance on the SAT has significance on the athletes’ performance in college compared to non-athletes? One answer to this question is the examination of graduation rates. According to a study, which Schulman and Bowen examined, involving males at selective schools playing high profile sports from 1951 to 1989, the graduation rate is similar to their classmates that aren’t on a varsity sport. (The Game of Life, 61).

Still, many big-time college football programs have less than average graduation rates. Ohio State’s graduation rate is 36 percent among scholarship football players entering school from 1992 through 1995, which is the most recent available data. This was 20 points beneath the rate of all athletes and the overall student body. (Malcom Moran, USA Today, Aug. 4, 2003).

Maurice Clarett, star running back at Ohio State, has shown interest in turning pro, but because of an NFL rule preventing players from turning pro without three college seasons, Clarett is taking legal action. Although Clarett has jeopardized his college career with his own dishonesty over academic and off-the-field violations, Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor says, “The (NFL) might be concerned with the health of prospective young players, but it is undoubtedly more concerned with the health of the system that has made college football a free minor league for the pros. Maintaining the status quo isn’t a good enough reason to deny young players like Clarett.” (Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 6, 2003).

Another aspect to look into is grade performance. While grades between athletes and non-athletes in the study examined by Schulman and Bowen were virtually the same in 1951, they were lower for high profile athletes than non-athletes as time progressed. In 1989, high profile athletes ranked, on average, in the 25th percentile while non-athletes were at the 49th percentile. (The Game of Life, 62). A similar trend in low grades on average by high profile athletes has stretched down to Division III over time. The biggest discrepancy in grades involving high profile athletes and non-athletes has been at private universities in recent years, where colleges like Duke and Vanderbilt have significantly lower grades among high profile athletes compared to the rest of the student body. (The Game of Life, 64).

Shulman and Bowen wrote, “By 1989, the phenomenon of athletes underperforming their predicted class rank had spread to all levels of competition in the Lower Profile sports, and it had deepened in the High Profile sports at all levels of play except for the Division IA public universities.” (The Game of Life, 67).

One reason athletes may not perform as well as the rest of the student body is because they face demanding schedules and aren’t involved in the every day interaction with professors and students. College athletes, especially big-time football players, are often separated from the student body because of their busy schedules. At UNC, the football team has one academic counselor and two learning specialists, Deibler said. The director of the academic support program also helps out with academic counseling, she said.

Although it is considered an amateur activity, college football, or college athletics for that matter, appear as a minor league training ground to some observers. Many notice the daily regimens resemble professional practices or workouts. As Schulman and Bowen wrote on page 82 of The Game of Life:

“More generally, it appears that a distinct ‘athletic culture’ is appearing in essentially all sports and at all levels of play, including the Division III coed liberal arts colleges. This culture tends to separate athletes from other students and exacerbates the problems of academic performance. As one example, athletes are more and more concentrated in certain fields of study. Athletes at all of these schools, in the Lower Profile sports as well as in the High Profile sports, seem to be heading in their own directions—and in directions that may or may not be consistent with the missions of the colleges and universities that admitted them.”

If the practice and playing schedule don’t flirt with the correlation to professional sports, the high costs for advertising and commercialization of college football make many people speculate a college’s mission.

College football has in many ways become an arms race, but particularly in one way: school spending. Coaches are paid more and more as well as excessive spending on facilities. Washington University paid Coach Rick Neuheisel (who had numerous NCAA violations during his tenure at Colorado and Washington) $1.5 million annually, which increased the salary costs other college football coaches would demand.

But Neuheisel’s contract is child’s play compared to what the University of Oregon has done. It spent $3.2 million for its football locker room. A room that Bill Moos, the school’s athletic director, boasts, “The best in college football? It is the best anywhere, including the NFL.” (Blaine Newnham, The Seattle Times, Sept. 9, 2003). How can college football be considered an amateur sport when you have an athletic director bragging about how his school’s locker room is better than any in the pros? And some people might question how a bunch of “amateur” college football players need three 60-inch plasma TVs, two of which are hooked up for Xbox games at a cost of $15,000 each in the lounge area? Oregon has 120 lockers, which means that each locker costs $26,667, including one locker reserved for Nike chairman Phil Knight even though other boosters of the program provided the funding. Still, Knight paid for half of the nearly $100 million expansion of the football stadium. Proving that college sports is a moneymaking business, Moos says, “We have to produce revenue and you do that by retaining coaches and attracting talent. We don’t have 365 days of sunshine a year, but we do have great facilities.” Is spending a problem in college athletics? Blaine Newnham of the Seattle Times certainly thinks so, writing, “The state’s educational system is under economic siege. Dorm rooms shared by two average 145 square feet. Class sizes have grown. Professor salaries are among the lowest in the country ... The NCAA vigorously watches recruiting excess. It doesn’t control the building of facilities. The Ducks have found a loophole, and jumped through it.” (Blaine Newnham, The Seattle Times, Sept. 9, 2003).

In defense of Moos, the athletic departments are under tremendous pressure by boosters, alumni and fans to have winning teams, especially winning football teams. The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act is another reason athletic director’s are spending more money. This act requires colleges to publicly report the amount they spend on athletic coaches, facilities, etc. Athletic directors are now looking at these reports from other schools and comparing them to their school, which puts pressure on them to meet their competitor’s price. (The Game of Life, 12).

There are some positive things that come when big-time Division I football teams bring in revenue. Some may argue that no matter how strong a college’s academic reputation or pretty a campus, athletics creates interest and brings in the revenue. In simple terms, fans are more concerned with touchdowns than good test scores. As Shulman and Bowen wrote, “The uniformed hero in his or her mud-splashed splendor is a much more arresting image than a photo of a history major with writer’s block or an economist hunched over a problem set.” (The Game of Life, 10). At UNC, the football team for the fiscal year of June 30, 2002: total revenues were $15 million; total expenses $8.5 million; and a net of roughly $6.5 million, according to Martina Ballen, UNC senior associate officer for business and finance.

Unfortunately for many colleges, their football programs are running deficits.

The football programs that bring in a lot revenue are often justified for the ticket sales, booster donations and endorsement contracts because they bring in money that helps support the low profile sports. Winning programs often please alumni that have a certain image or pride about their colleges’ football program, and can attract future student interest and marketing appeal. (The Game of Life, 4).

Power conferences can also generate more revenue than lesser conferences because they have a conference championship and usually are invited to play in the more prestigious and higher-paying bowl games. The money is split up between conference teams. That is why the ACC conference is expanding. Most would agree the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami are not going to improve the academic excellence of the ACC, but these two schools will resemble a Florida State-caliber football team. Conferences also gain revenue through college football television contracts. The NCAA used to own the rights to college football on TV until a 1984 Supreme Court decision let individual schools and conferences work out their own contracts. (The Game of Life, 16).

The increase in the number of football television stations and the increase in interest in the game with lucrative commercialization has caused the TV contracts to keep rising. Winning and losing sometimes involves more than millions, but instead billions of dollars for networks.

While television contracts and facilities may be secure for a significant period of time, coaches sometimes have a short career to meet a school’s criteria.

“Some coaches just like to be on that edge of right and wrong,” Deibler said. “Our coaches here are more conservative, and I think in most schools they are because they want to do the right thing.”

Possibly feeling pressure from his gaudy contract, Neuheisel is an example of a coach that doesn’t have a conservative history. He amassed more than 50 recruiting violations while coaching at Colorado. Less than a month after he was hired at Washington because he had won a lot of games at Colorado, Neuheisel was not allowed to accept any transfers because he made illegal calls to Colorado players. He was most recently fired at Washington because he bet more than $6,000 on NCAA basketball pools and did not tell the NCAA of this violation. He also lied to the Washington athletic director and the media about a secret interview he had in February for the 49ers’ coaching job. (Tim Layden, Sports Illustrated, June 23, 2003).

Many people say Division II and Division III college football is closer to being a purely amateur sport than Division I football because there is less money, commercialization and boosters involved, not to mention the fact it is rare that any of these players ever appear on an NFL roster.

Of course there is always the exception, like tight end Kyle Acker, who plays at Salisbury University. Although he is currently playing for a small Division III school in Maryland and has caught the eye of more than a dozen pro scouts and has received calls from agents, at 6'3", weighing 255 pounds and running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, Acker is an anomaly. Of course neither he nor any of his players have athletic scholarships. They travel only by bus to away games. (Gary Lambrecht, Baltimore Sun, Sept. 27, 2003).

There are certainly many issues in college football that have, are and will be debated for generations. Whether something is right or wrong, human nature is always going to be part of the scenario, which could lead to future solutions or problems. As George Orwell wrote in 1947, “On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and the exercise; but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.”


Bowen, William, and James Shulman. The Game of Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Newspapers and Magazines
Brooks, B.G. “CU can’t read between dotted lines.” Rocky Mountain News: Sept. 27, 2003.
Lambrecht, Gary. “Unexpected catch turns up on Shore.” Baltimore Sun: Sept. 27, 2003.
Layden, Tim. “Charms and the Man; He’s a talented coach, but can Rick Neuheisel’s charisma overcome his flaws?” Sports Illustrated: June 23, 2003.
Moran, Malcolm. “Ohio State, Clarett tackle off-field issues.” USA Today: Aug. 4, 2003.
Newnham, Blaine. “At $26,667 per locker, Ducks land in luxury.” Seattle Times: Sept. 9, 2003.
Taylor, Phil. “Phil Taylor’s Sidelines.” Sports Illustrated: Oct. 6, 2003.
Whiteside, Kelly. “NCAA official: ‘We do have a gambling problem on our campuses.’” USA Today: June 6, 2003.
Whiteside, Kelly. “Through scandal after scandal, Alabama’s faith remains firm.” USA Today: May 5, 2003.


Martina Ballen, UNC senior associate athletic director for business and finance
Lisa Deibler, UNC director of compliance
Rick Steinbacher, UNC assistant athletic director for football operations


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