Is eliminating athletic scholarships March madness?

March ushers in the beginning of spring (at least in most parts of the country) and it’s March Madness time—college basketball at its finest. You know the drill—college athletes give their best while the NCAA, college alumni, sponsors and the networks promote and abuse the college athlete. At least that’s how Ralph Nader and his League of Fans (a sports version of his activism) see it.

Ralph Nader’s proposal

If Ralph Nader had his way, he would eliminate athletic scholarships. Why? He believes that colleges exploit the athletes and have lost the focus of what college was meant to be: an institution of higher education.

Nader’s League of Fans made their case last week:

“Clearly athletes on scholarship are pro athletes. Professional sports means ‘pay for play,’” says Ken Reed, senior issues analyst for League of Fans. “Athletic scholarships are financial inducements to play sports at college. Basically, they are one-year contracts between an athlete and a coach. Coaches can literally fire athletes for poor performance or injury. As such, a scholarship athlete’s first priority in college is to play sports. Education is a secondary consideration. Paying for young people to come to college campuses to focus on sports – not education – is perverse.”

Here’s the bonus: The benefits of eliminating the athletic scholarship at the college level continue at the lower levels of sports in our country. The high pressure, win-at-all-costs mentality that permeates our youth and high school sports programs is often “justified” as the price necessary to earn a college scholarship.

An entire industry has developed in the youth sports arena –club teams, personal trainers, etc. — to prey on families’ dreams of an athletic scholarship. The lure of the elusive athletic scholarship is the primary – sometimes the only – marketing tool these youth sports entrepreneurs use.

With the allure of college athletic scholarships, the focus in our youth and high school sports programs has increasingly been on the development of elite athletes vs. participation for all. Intramurals and physical education programs have been scaled way back during today’s childhood obesity epidemic, while varsity high school programs, which serve only a small percentage of the student population, remain sufficiently funded.

It would be difficult for anyone to disagree with these affirmations. But just simply stating the facts and proposing elimination requires a deeper knowledge of how college sports scholarships play into the college process.

The NCAA’s response

Nader’s proposal caused such controversy that the NCAA issued a statement:

“Mr. Nader’s proposal is off-base on so many fronts it is hard to know where to start. The 145,000 student-athletes who receive athletics related financial aid each year are in fact students first — as evidenced by the fact that in almost every demographic they graduate at higher percentages than their counterparts in the general student body. Moreover, less than two percent of them will ever play professional sports. The assertion that student-athletes who receive athletics aid are professionals defies logic — they are students, just like any other student on campus who receives a merit-based scholarship.”

Referring to athletic scholarships as a form of merit-based scholarships drives home their point. However, its irrefutable that these scholarships are abused and often out of balance with other merit-based scholarships.

The bottom line

Everyone will agree that the system is flawed. But it’s no secret that only a very small percentage of students receive athletic scholarships, especially full rides. It’s also important to note that athletic scholarships are not just those for football and basketball. There are scholarships for fishing, golf, lacrosse and some even lesser known sports. Eliminating all athletic scholarships casts an awfully large net that will affect more than just those college athletes who are in the public eye.

Nader makes a valid point but looking at the overall picture bears some additional thought. If athletic scholarships were eliminated altogether, the top athletes from high schools will simply bypass college and play professionally until they are eligible for the draft. Is bypassing college truly the outcome and message we as a nation want to generate?

As my grandmother once said, “You don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” Calling for reform is definitely warranted, but perhaps total elimination is a bit extreme. Nader, however, believes his proposal is valid and plans to approach Congress in the future. It’s unlikely the extreme will happen; but it might open a debate and cause some much-needed reform. Only time will tell.

Do you think athletic scholarships should be eliminated? Leave us a comment and let’s start the conversation here.


MBA candidate at @tuckschool of business at dartmouth. lover of huskies, the ocean & boston sports. hoya saxa!