There is no time in which promises, potentiality, and pleading are more celebrated than during college football recruiting and the upcoming National Football Signing Day. Whether it be the daily phone calls, mountains of letters, or in-home visits, college recruiters will tell top recruits just about anything to get them to sign, and usually the recruiter with the best “mouthpiece” gets the recruit to sign on the dotted line. However, I doubt that at anytime during their recruitment are recruits told that their “free four-year ride” to pay for their college education:
- Is NOT really free;
- Is NOT guaranteed for four (4) years; and
- Is NOT necessarily for a college education.
First, the four-year scholarship every high school football player dreams about receiving is actually a one (1)-year, renewable at the institution’s discretion, financial aid package. Regardless of all the talk about “we are going to treat your son like he is my own” and “we stress education and getting your degree to all of our players” that coaches spew during recruiting, once on campus, if the athlete does not perform to the level that the coach expected, the athlete runs the real risk of having his “full ride scholarship” cancelled after his “subpar” season. Take the case of Joseph Agnew formerly of Rice University, hardly the bastion of athletic dominance, who is suing Rice after his scholarship was not renewed between his sophomore and junior years due to several injuries. Like most D-1 scholarship athletes, Agnew had multiple scholarship offers as he graduated from high school. However, when he got injured and couldn’t help the school and its coaches win games (i.e., earn money, prestige, and recognition), he had no protection from losing his “full-ride” scholarship.
Second, according to a recent ground-breaking research study, the average “full scholarship” Division I athlete actually pays about $3,000.00 annually in school-related expenses. It’s just wrong that while head coaches enjoy guaranteed multi-million-dollar-a-year contracts and six-figure bonuses for championships, and the NCAA and member universities bathe in multi-billion dollar TV deals, the so-called “student-athletes” are not compensated for their labor that generates the billions enjoyed by everyone else associated with the College Sports Entertainment Complex. This is truly and out rightly shameful in and of itself. Yet, for these same athletes actually to have to pay thousands of dollars each year to the same institutions that profit from the athletes’ talents, skills, blood, sweat and tears is absurd and a moral outrage — especially when you consider that 80% the athletes at these institutions are Black kids from poor inner-city communities whose families oftentimes can’t afford even to attend one home game, let alone subsidize their sons’ alleged “full ride scholarships.”
Third, while coaches receive six-figure bonuses for wins, bowl games, and championships, I am not aware of one coach in the United States who has that type of bonus clause tied to the graduation rate of his athletes. Therefore, it is easy to understand why the top schools athletically oftentimes have the worse graduation rates for their athletes. For example, 2010 National Champion Auburn only ranked 85 out of 120 in the graduation rate for its football players. It’s even more egregious when you take a look at the graduation rates of Black male student-athletes whose graduation rate barely hovers over 50%. That’s why I’m in full agreement with U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan who recommends that the NCAA penalize coaches and universities that don’t graduate their players, in the same manner that the NCAA allows those coaches and universities to benefit when the programs have on-the-field success.
Too many student-athletes will complete their college eligibility with no degree from their school, no pro career, and highly in debt for their schooling at the college for which they just made millions. Therefore, I call on the NCAA to: 1) immediately prohibit recruiters from telling kids they are offering them “full-ride” four-year scholarships, 2) punish coaches and programs that continue to have dismal graduation rates, and 3) equitably share with student-athletes some of the billions of dollars generated by the student-athletes’ labor and likenesses. Lastly, recruits and their families need to make sure they understand the “fine print” associated with major college football signing day.
So, as you or your love one signs that scholarship today, please take heed of the three (3) important points that I always counsel my pre-college clients to consider:
- Understand and accept that — when the hoopla dies down, the rankings become irrelevant, and you have already signed on that dotted line — the coach who recruited you did so for one reason: to help him keep his job by winning games, because the reality is that coaches are hired and fired based on “Ws and Ls” and not “As and Bs.” Therefore, the program that you are signing with fully intends to get out of you every ounce of athletic talent and potential that you possess.
- You must individually take responsibility for your education and growth as a whole person seriously and seek to maximize fully the academic and life skill opportunities that the university as a whole provides to you. This means you must take advantage of every tutor provided, computer and language lab staffed, and networking opportunity available. Additionally, this means that you must have an active role in deciding your major and what classes you take. In other words, pick a major and classes that interest you and provide you opportunities for a viable lifetime career/s once your athletic career is over – not just the courses that are easy or convenient to your athletic schedule.
- If you do not become the player that everybody thought you would become, you run the risk of losing your “full ride.” So, always look for opportunities to excel outside of sports and be noticed for being more than an athlete. This can be accomplished by taking the lead on a class project, applying for academic- or community service-based awards, or simply taking the time to request to have lunch with the president of your university. This will make it more difficult to get “run off” because you will have non-athletic supporters that value you for more than your on-field production. Those relationships and allies could make the difference when it comes time to renew your scholarship. Additionally, make sure you follow all team and university rules because you don’t want to give the coach “cause” not to renew your annual scholarship with the proverbial “player dismissed for violation of team rules” report, when in fact you committed the same “violation” as your roommate who just happens to be the star running back, but is still on the team.
In closing, please note that I believe having the opportunity to be recruited to play college football (or any sport) is one of the greatest honors one can receive. Further, to be blessed to play major college football was one of the highlights of my life. Despite the above and other negatives that come with being a pawn in the College Sports Entertainment Complex, I believe that – with proper attention and effort — there can be far more positives than negatives in playing major college sports. Playing for my state’s flagship university is something that I would sign up for in a heartbeat if given the opportunity (and the knees) to do it again!
Damario Solomon-Simmons, M.Ed., J.D., an NCAA D-1 football letter winner at the University of Oklahoma. He is the managing partner of SolomonSimmonSharrock & Associates law firm, whose personal practice focuses on Sports, Entertainment, and Diversity. He is also a professor of African & African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.solomonsimmons.com.