I attended UC Berkeley on an athletic scholarship. It was a four-year deal, paying the then-minimal “fees” (there was no tuition, per se), and providing a $2/hr. job up to a maximum of 80 hours a month, as I recall.* (This was a long time ago, so give an old fart a break.) Out of income I derived from on-campus work I paid room and board plus books, for the most part—I was forced to supplement with very cheap student loans. I considered myself very fortunate at the time: being able to attend a world-renowned academic institution while doing something I loved—pitching a baseball.
The New York Times Joe Nocera draws the comparison between the oil cartel and the NCAA. Both are allowed to dictate terms and conditions via collusion. In the latter’s case, college players earn no salaries, though they add financial value to their respective schools. And this much surprised me: it appears that universities no longer award four-year scholarships; they’re now for one year, subject to renewal. As Nocera puts it:
How can it [the NCAA] justify rolling back a change that would truly help student athletes, such as the four-year scholarship, simply because coaches want to continue to have life-or-death power over their charges?
Nocera offers even harsher criticism:
In fact, the N.C.A.A.’s real role is to oversee the collusion of university athletic departments, whose goal is to maximize revenue and suppress the wages of its captive labor force, a k a the players.
I have mixed feelings about Nocera’s assertions. With few, if any, exceptions football and basketball bring in the revenues; minor sports like baseball are in essence subsidized by the first two. There was no way that the Cal baseball team could have paid its own way. Indeed, there were very few people who attended our home games at Evans Field. I felt bad that they were forced to pay admission, given the mediocre talent on display. Our baseball team wasn’t very good back then. Come to think of it, neither were our football and basketball teams. Cal always did well at water polo, rugby, and crew, though. Three cheers. (By the way, after the university announced last year that it would no longer fund baseball—the program has been around for more than 115 years—a group of former players, now well-heeled, organized an alternative funding mechanism that requires no public money.) If the schools paid their football and basketball players fair market value, there would be less money to subsidize the other sports.
On the other hand, a university clearly profits at the expense of its “captive labor force.” Playing football, at any rate, is a very dangerous proposition. Injuries sustained on the gridiron can leave players permanently disabled. (I witnessed a highly touted freshman lineman suffer what proved to be a fatal injury; he died in hospital the next morning.) For assuming such risks the players receive no insurance or guarantees, especially now that the scholarships are for just a single year.
Former UW president and now NCAA head Mark Emmert reportedly persuaded the board of directors to re-establish the four-year scholarship along with an annual $2,000 stipend. The universities erupted, overriding the board.
I believe that Emmert’s proposal is the least the NCAA can do for its players. Adding insurance, especially for football players, would be another welcome addition.
Notice that I have not weighed in on the much larger issue of college athletics. Should academic institutions even have sports? Regardless of where you stand, I assure you that a “No” would provoke the loudest, angriest chorus of protests since the French Revolution. There’s lots of money at stake along with well-connected alumni who would demand and receive heads on a platter. (When I was at Berkeley it’s new sister at Santa Cruz opened with no intercollegiate athletic program. So no traditions had been established. Lots of frisbees, however.)
* The job varied by the season. During football I placed then retrieved the yard markers or swept the slopes, as we athletes dubbed it. We were collecting garbage left in the stands. When baseball season started one of my duties was preparing the pitching mound, to my standards, of course. Best damn mound in the Pac 8. See how old I am? Otherwise I somehow kept busy, although I don’t remember the tasks.