Scholarships Reshape the Landscape of Youth Sports

Jun 20, 2008

(The following is an excerpt from a new book published in May, “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children,” (ESPN Books), by ESPN reporter Tom Farrey. In Chapter Six, the author explores the impact of athletic scholarships on the landscape of youth sports. He spends time with the family of a six-year-old girl who plays hockey with an elite Boston-area club that has a history of delivering college athletes.)
Karla Aguirre doesn’t talk to Karly, her daughter, about athletic scholarships. She reminds herself that Karly is still a little girl who wants kisses on her boo-boos. But everyone else talks to them about scholarships. Sometimes it’s fellow parents, who often half joke among themselves about the carrot dangling before each of them. Better work on her edges, we need scholarships, they’ll say with a wink; or, Gotta listen to the coach, scholarship money’s on the line. Sometimes it’s the coach himself projecting a dozen years out. One day at practice coach Chip says to Karly, “See you in D1 hockey.” On the ride home, Karly blushed at the seeming absurdity of the notion. “Coach is talking about college,” she told her mom. “I’m not old yet!” She’s just started first grade. Still, Karla concedes that she would be lying if she said the idea hasn’t penetrated her consciousness. “It’s nerve-wracking because I don’t want to say something to her that might take the fun out of it, like I’m pushing her,” Karla says. “But I think about it. She could potentially get scholarship money for doing something that makes her happy.”
If any of this sounds slightly premature and a lot like a feeding frenzy, it’s also an inevitable development. In recent years, the NCAA has thrown a lot more chum into the choppy waters of youth sports. During the 1992-93 school year, NCAA member colleges and universities handed out $377 million in athletically related financial aid, across all sports and divisions. By the turn of the century, the pot had passed $1 billion. In 2006, in response to an inquiry asking the NCAA to explain why athletic programs shouldn’t pay federal taxes given the extremely commercial nature of their most prominent sports, association president Myles Brand told Congress that athlete scholarship payouts had reached $1.5 billion. So, in just a decade and a half—about the same amount of time that it will have taken for Bill Clinton to settle in at the White House and his successor George W. Bush to check out—the amount of money awaiting young athletes at the end of high school has quadrupled.
Chum does not a meal make. An athletic scholarship carries with it many conditions that favor the NCAA member institution, notably: 1) Four-year deals that guarantee the student-athlete access to an education were prohibited in 1973 after coaches complained that they didn’t have enough control over players given multiyear commitments. Athletic scholarships today are more like one-year performance contracts, renewable entirely at the discretion of the university—and more specifically the coach—which can terminate aid if the player isn’t performing well. 2) Most of these deals are partial scholarships that cover no more than half or a quarter of an athlete’s college costs. And 3) even when so-called “full rides”—a package that includes tuition, room, board, and required books—are awarded, they don’t pay the full cost of attendance, an official figure that accounts for such incidental expenses as transportation, clothing, and laundry, which typically add up to about $2,500 to $3,000 beyond the scholarship.
But chum does come cheap. The NCAA is, in effect, a cartel whose members long ago agreed not to get into monetary bidding wars over recruits, so athletes are in fact the only students on a college campus who are restricted in terms of the amount of school-based aid they can receive. At public universities, the maximum value of a typical scholarship is less than $14,000 a year for in-state and $24,000 for out-of-state students; even an athletic gold mine such as former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith could not bargain for more than the annual $18,860 grant he was given. But the expense to the university is even lower than that, as economist Andrew Schwarz has pointed out. Tuition is not a payment made in cash to an athlete—unlike the salary paid to Smith’s coach, Jim Tressel, who made $2.4 million during the quarterback’s senior year. Awarding a scholarship is effectively an internal bookkeeping maneuver with no real overhead—the promise of a chair in a classroom to a student who agrees to play sports for the university. For a school that does not have a hard cap on its enrollment, as most do not, the cost is negligible because athletes need not displace students who do pay.
And there are the wholesale discounts involved that Brand made no mention of in his letter to Congress. Books might be charged at retail to the athletic department—but in such an arrangement, the school’s campus bookstore makes a profit. Room and board are the rare expenses for which schools must actually cut a check to an athlete, but only if he or she lives off campus.
The net cost of an athletic scholarship to a typical university: $5,000 to $10,000. In return, the college gets an athlete who typically devotes north of 30 hours a week to their sport. For football players it’s 45 hours a week.
Deal or No Deal, Dr. Brand?
Unlike pro sports, most of the money flowing into college sports does not flow back out to athletes. Total annual operating revenues for all NCAA divisions has skyrocketed to $7.8 billion a year, so scholarships (even disregarding all those phantom costs) usually soak up fewer than one of every five dollars that are collected. Division I universities hand out the vast majority of athletically based aid—the remainder gets distributed to Division II athletes—but even the most ambitious programs do not spend the majority of their winnings on athletes. Take Ohio State, again. It has one of the largest programs in college sports, with nearly 923 athletes on 14 men’s and 15 women’s teams. Yet the cost of all scholarships gobbles up only $12 million of the $109 million in revenues that come to the athletic department. Across Division I and II, four in 10 athletes won’t receive any aid; they play for free.
Still, for up-and-coming child athletes and their parents across the country, $1.5 billion is a real, and magical, number. Because that’s how much cash will be saved by the 25,000 high school seniors each year who convince a coach that they can help his or her team win some games. College costs have risen drastically in recent years. A full athletic scholarship at an elite private school such as Duke or Stanford is worth about $45,000 a year. That’s a figure comparable to the net salary of the typical pro athlete, believe it or not. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the median annual gross earnings of the 17,000 pro athletes who drew paychecks in 2004—from the lowliest minor league baseball players to the highest-paid NBA stars—was $48,310.
The NCAA, as a registered nonprofit, characterizes itself as engaged in the exercise of amateur sports. The association works hard to draw a distinction in the public mind between its school-based model and that of the clubs in Europe and elsewhere that sign promising teenagers to professional contracts. But even in the most popular international sport, soccer, and in the country that produced the reigning World Cup champion, Italy, there are only 3,541 pros … of all ages. In the U.S., where soccer isn’t a marquee game even at the collegiate level, about 3,700 freshmen each year will receive formal commitments totaling $32 million annually from NCAA soccer programs. And far more get deals in other sports. In practical terms, no sports organization in the world offers greater financial incentives to focus children’s lives on athletic achievement than does the NCAA.
And no sport offers better odds at cashing in than girls’ ice hockey.
More information about the book is available at the author’s website,


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