Colleges, universities slow to offer multiyear athletic scholarships
May 19, 2013 4:00 AM
Tyler Boyd, left, watches as his mother Tonya Payne puts her signature on his letter of intent to play football for the University of Pittsburgh during a press conference at Clairton High School in February on the first day freshmen in the Class of 2013 were permitted to sign binding letters with colleges. Boyd was joined in signing with Pitt by Clairton teammates Terrish Webb and Titus Howard.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At first, Tyler Boyd couldn't tell the difference between the Pittsburgh scholarship deal that sounded right and the one he was actually receiving. Was his full-ride scholarship to play football for Pittsburgh guaranteed for four years, or would it last for only one year, its extension contingent on coach Paul Chryst agreeing to renew it each summer?
"The multiyear, the first one, I think," said Boyd, a Clairton High School student who signed with the Panthers in February.
He thought about it for a moment longer. He then asked his coach, Tom Nola. Boyd reconsidered. In fact, he thought, his scholarship lasted for only one year with a renewal option.
Scholarship length has long been one of the greatest misconceptions in college athletics. The assumption is that when an athlete signs to play and study at a given institution the university makes an official commitment in return, guaranteeing at least four years of an education. In reality, the NCAA used to mandate that scholarships could last for only one year with the possibility of renewal. A coach could re-sign an athlete or cut him or her loose.
In the summer of 2011, the NCAA changed this rule. It passed legislation giving Division I universities the option to offer multiyear scholarships, guaranteeing an education as long as the athlete stays out of legal trouble, doesn't violate school or NCAA rules, keeps playing the sport and maintains academic eligibility. The athlete is also free to leave, under the same transfer rules as always.
But nearly two years after that legislation, multiyear scholarships are rare, not publicized by universities and largely unknown by the athletes. According to data of 82 universities at the Division I-A level obtained by the Post-Gazette through open records requests, only 16 have offered more than 10 multiyear scholarships. Thirty-two of the universities have offered between one and 10, and thirty-four have not offered any.
Ryan Squire, the associate athletics director for compliance at Illinois, remembers that when the legislation was passed in 2011 many schools "were all calling around saying, 'What are you going to do, what are you going to do?' And they said, 'We're kind of going to hope other schools aren't doing it.'"
The majority of athletes at Illinois receive four-year scholarships. Fresno State is the only university to switch one-year scholarships for all of its current athletes to multiyear scholarships and to offer four-year scholarships for all incoming athletes.
Pittsburgh and Penn State, which do not have to provide information under Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, did not offer data.
The great majority of athletic scholarships are still good for just one year, renewable on a coach's decision, a procedure that flaunts the education-first narrative pitched by the NCAA and member schools, especially at a time when promising an education until graduation is possible. Long-time college athletics reformer Allen Sack has compared the practice of granting one-year renewable scholarships to employment contracts.
"If you didn't perform you were going to get fired," said Sack, the president of the Drake Group and the interim dean for the college of business at New Haven University. "When I heard a year ago they were going back I was absolutely blown away. Nobody else was. I still think it's historic. ... It depends on how far it goes."
Sack has advocated for multiyear scholarships for more than a decade. He was pleasantly surprised that any schools had chosen the option of awarding multiyear scholarships but wanted a five-year scholarship to become the standard for all institutions. He says that if scholarships were guaranteed for all athletes until graduation it would help return an educational aspect to the NCAA, reining in at least one of the excesses and problems of college athletics.
For change to go far, schools will have to endorse the concept of guaranteeing education to college athletes, which is clearly not an easy proposition. The refrain from many college coaches is that multiyear scholarships aren't necessary because they don't actually "cut" athletes. But if coaches and athletic directors had the best interests for their athletes and wouldn't cut them for performance or injury reasons, why wouldn't they just give multiyear scholarships?
Such questions posed to more than 10 athletic departments were generally met with incomplete political answers, suspicion or, often, silence. Texas, Oregon and Texas A&M stood out as universities that had not given any multiyear scholarships. Representatives from the Texas and Texas A&M athletic departments did not respond to interview requests. Oregon associate athletic director Craig Pintens said Oregon left scholarship decisions to individual coaches, had never discussed a formal policy of granting them and had no plans to do so, not specifying why.
When the multiyear legislation was passed in 2011, it was spearheaded by the NCAA student-athlete well-being working group, which was chaired by Middle Tennessee State president Sidney McPhee. His university has yet to award a multiyear scholarship. He did not respond to multiple interview requests.
When Illinois implemented a policy of granting four-year scholarships and extending current athletes' scholarships to last until their athletic eligibility expired, Squire says the football coach at the time, Ron Zook, did not approve of the multiyear promises.
"People are always afraid of change," Squire said, "and coaches felt like they would lose the control."
Though Indiana football coach Kevin Wilson said he would never not renew a scholarship if an athlete had underperformed or was injured, he said he didn't want to give his athletes the "carte blanche" he believes would come with a four-year scholarship.
At Penn State, football coach Bill O'Brien said he does not give multiyear scholarships. Though he said he wouldn't cut a player for athletic reasons, he said he likes the one-year renewable scholarships "because that's another chance for me to bring them in and talk to them about where they are in the program."
Last year, then-Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley went a step further. Dooley said he wanted the ability to take away a scholarship if someone didn't perform on his team, comparing it to a university's ability to take away an academic scholarship if a student didn't perform academically.
"You have these contracts," he said at a press conference. "It's called quid pro quo. We give you this. You give us that. But if they don't give us this and we decide not to give them this, then it's the worst thing you can do. I'm still struggling to understand that issue."
The NCAA started allowing formal athletic scholarships in 1957. At the time scholarships lasted for four years, much to the dismay of coaches and athletic directors.
For his book Counterfeit Amateurs, Sack studied the archives of former NCAA president Walter Byers. He came across multiple letters from athletic directors addressed to Byers who were irate at underperforming athletes or those who no longer wanted to play. The athletic departments wanted more power.
In 1973, the NCAA limited all athletic scholarships to one year, renewable at the coach's discretion. A New York Times story from 1973 summarized the rule change this way: "That plan" -- the one from 1957-1973 -- "was to prevent coaches from eliminating the players who did not do well on the athletic team. Now a coach can take away such a scholarship if the boy does not shape up athletically."
After nearly 40 years, the NCAA reversed that decision. Starting with the fall signing period of 2011, all Division I universities could offer multiyear scholarships. Scholarships of current athletes could be changed to multiyear scholarships as well. The plan nearly fell through.
A few months after the legislation passed, enough schools had submitted a petition to override the ruling. A vote was taken. These universities not only didn't want to give multiyear scholarships, they wanted to ensure that no other universities could. If two more schools had voted for the override, the option to give multiyear scholarships would have been eliminated.
In February 2012, Alabama football coach Nick Saban expressed the unwillingness of coaches to accept the possibility of giving multiyear scholarships, saying at a press conference, "I think this is some people's cynical approach to think that coaches don't have the best interests of the young people that they coach in mind."
The "cynical approach" has often been realistic. After John Calipari was hired as Kentucky basketball coach in 2009 six former Wildcats basketball players, including Matt Pilgrim and Kevin Galloway, told ESPN that Calipari had them off because they didn't fit his system or desired talent level. Even the university president, Lee Todd Jr., was quoted as saying, "He was very clear and very honest that (some) may not fit this dribble-drive approach."
Former Ohio University football player Jason Whitehead was temporarily paralyzed in a workout in 2001 and sustained a career-ending injury. An academic year later, his scholarship was not renewed, according to the New York Times.
Saban, too, has had controversy regarding players leaving his program. The website oversigning.com documented the practice of football teams signing more than 25 players in a given signing period. These signings put teams over the 85 scholarship limit for football, and every summer a questionable mass exodus of current players would follow. In 2010 and 2011, oversigning.com documented 21 football players who left the Alabama program.
"I've never had a coach I asked if you take away scholarship, say 'yes,'" Sack says. "And then we see just short of an override and every one of those people says, 'We'd never take a scholarship away.' Isn't there something a little disingenuous about that?"
Of the BCS conferences, the Big Ten had the best track record for offering multiyear scholarships, led by Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, which offers four-year deals to football players as part of coach Mark Dantonio's policy. The Big 12, which was the only BCS conference to formally support the override vote, had offered the fewest, with Kansas State, Texas, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State all having given two or fewer multiyear scholarships in two years.
For the record, the Alabama athletic department gave out 23 multiyear scholarships in 2012-13, declining to release which sports they were for because of state privacy laws. At Kentucky, in what will come as a surprise to most college sports fans, Calipari awarded a four-year scholarship to all four members of his 2012-13 freshman class.
Representatives from Illinois and Fresno State said extending four-year guaranteed scholarships had no major drawbacks, including financial problems for the university or the athlete. Even partial scholarship athletes, like those in non-revenue sports, can sign a four-year guarantee and still receive increases in aid later on. The aid just can't be decreased or taken away without a legitimate reason.
"It's almost always going to be the multiyear agreement is for the benefit of the student-athlete, and it just sends the right message about our commitment to them," said Squire, the Illinois compliance director. "That's kind of where we came out. That's interesting to hear that we're that far outside the norm."
Ensuring education for college athletes is so far outside the norm that it almost seems like multiyear scholarships don't exist.
"I've never had a parent bring it up to me and I'm around a lot of people," says Montour High School football coach Lou Cerro. "I'm not sure why the NCAA and the coaches are keeping this a secret. It doesn't make any sense."
Why did the NCAA decide to allow multiyear scholarships in 2011?
In 2010, Joseph Agnew sued the NCAA. He had played college football for Rice until an injury ended his career. Rice didn't renew his scholarship, though Agnew had yet to graduate. The lawsuit claimed that the NCAA's limits on scholarships were anticompetitive because the one-year restrictions prevented him from getting a four-year scholarship that would have ensured the full cost of a college education.
Though Agnew's lawsuit was thrown out, legal experts argued that the NCAA could still be vulnerable to similar litigation. Not only that, says former Michigan president James Duderstadt, four-year scholarships could conceivably protect the NCAA should lawsuits arise demanding wages or workers compensation for athletes. Both of those situations could be argued for with greater success under a one-year contract that is only renewed if expectations of services are met. The four-year scholarship resembles an academically-rooted guarantee rather than an employment contract.
"That was a tactic by the NCAA -- by allowing this as an option they would not be subject to the litigation," says Duderstadt. "What you're pointing out is most institutions don't realize this and this tactic is not working."
Regardless of the NCAA's motives, anecdotal evidence suggests that current college athletes, high school athletes and high school coaches don't yet know that they could ask for multiyear scholarships. For this story, 30 people who could benefit from multiyear scholarships were interviewed, a group consisting of current Penn State football players and Pittsburgh area high school coaches and high school athletes of various sports. Only 12 of them knew multiyear scholarships could be offered. Six of the eight Penn State football players interviewed didn't even know there were different types of scholarships.
"I'm not sure," tight end Brent Wilkerson said. "I hope I'm on scholarship for four years."
Penn State safety Malcolm Willis said he was on a renewable scholarship and preferred it this way, saying, "you have to earn your scholarship."
Most high school coaches who learned of multiyear scholarships from this survey said they would counsel their recruited athletes about them in the future. That might be the best way to spread information, considering the numbers illustrate that colleges are hesitant to offer them.
It's a solution Sack would endorse: demanding the multiyear scholarship. In a flawed system that grants nearly all the power to universities and the NCAA, athletes should seize upon one of their few advantages.
"Families and counselors and the people who work with young kids need to let them know that they have this right because many of them don't know," Sack says. "If USC says, 'nope it's one year' -- if I was mom and dad in that situation I would say, 'you're not going to USC.' There has to be a national movement and a lot of public awareness."
The Post-Gazette requested athletic scholarship data from all 120 universities which played Division I-A football for the 2012-13 academic year and for the upcoming 2013-14 academic year. Because of state public record laws, financial considerations or a university's negligence, some data was not available and we were able to compile information from 82 schools. Of private schools, which aren't obligated to respond, only Tulane and Tulsa provided data.
Schools with the most multiyear scholarships awarded in all sports since 2011 through this February's football signing day in February:
Fresno State: 316*
Ohio State: 90
Arizona State: 52
North Carolina State: 52
Michigan State: 45
*Fresno State developed a policy that gives all incoming athletes four-year scholarships, and it extended current athletes' scholarships to cover their eligibility after the NCAA legislation was passed in 2011. It has 316 athletes who receive scholarship aid.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
34: The number of Universities that had not awarded any multiyear scholarships according to data provided. These schools included Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Washington State, Oregon and Clemson.
32: Universities that had given between one and 10 multiyear scholarships. These schools included Arizona, California, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia.
1,365: Multiyear scholarships awarded since 2011 by the 82 schools for which data was available. At those same schools, a conservative estimate would place more than 20,000 athletes on one-year renewable scholarships. Most Division I-A universities have anywhere from 300 to 600 athletes on full or partial scholarship, depending on how many varsity sports they offer.
633: Multiyear scholarships that have been awarded by the Big Ten.
11: Multiyear scholarships that have been awarded by the Big 12.
The Master List
Number of multiyear scholarships given for the 2012-13 year and additional number of multiyear scholarships so far given for the 2013-14 year by school.