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Ralph Nader is watching the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and he's angry. No, not because his brackets are busted (though maybe they are). It's because he's sick of watching "professional athletes" on full scholarships making a mockery of the ideal of the student-athlete, the one that has NCAA reps at post-game press conferences saying, "Any questions for the student-athletes?" He's so angry, Nader and his League of Fans (a sports version of his activism, not a new comic book) want to upend the system like a Corvair.
From Nader's League of Fans web site:
"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."
And the problem isn't just at the college level. Anyone who has a child in youth sports knows that talk of getting an athletic scholarship for your kid is endemic on the sidelines. I've had people mention to myself or my wife, the moment they found out my younger son was interested in bowling and my older son in boxing, that "you can get scholarships for that!"
From the League of Fans:
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.
Athletic scholarships lend a financial rationale to the premature creation of elite competitive travel teams that now dominate the youth sports landscape. Parents are spending $2,500-$5,000 a year on these club sports teams. This despite very long odds for the kids and parents seeking an athletic scholarship.
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.
From what I've seen, I can't say Nader is wrong about that.
However, I'm not sure his proposal to replace athletic scholarships with need-based funding will solve all problems. Particularly because schools that don't offer athletic scholarships (Ivy League, NCAA Division III, for example) can and do find ways to give them. They're just called something else. A Division III school was talking to my brother about running track and field there, and though it didn't offer athletic scholarships, the school told him they could find some money for him to make it worth his while. (My brother declined, and went to a school that did offer athletic scholarships, except not to him, so that was it for his track career.)
There is too much money at stake now, from the youth level on up, to pull away the scholarships driving the youth sports gravy train. In fact, I would say Chevrolet would have better luck bringing back the Corvair than Nader will have with his proposal.
Athletic scholarships: Unsafe at any speed.