Consumer advocate and former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader has a problem with the professionalization of intercollegiate athletics. He claims that college athletes are treated poorly under the “win-at-all-costs” environment generated by, for example, the 14 year, $11 billion broadcast rights contract between the NCAA and CBS/Turner Sports that was signed last year. Fair enough – I won’t dispute that college sports have become a business where student-athletes have few rights and on-field or -court success matters the most.
However, I don’t really understand Nader’s proposed solution. He wants to eliminate all athletic scholarships (“grants in aid” in the NCAA lingo) and replace them with need-based financial aid for student-athletes. The promise of a scholarship might generate unintended consequences for potential student athletes. For example, a prospective recruit might associate with some shady characters who have emerged as middle men in the market for football and basketball recruits the the past decade or so; they might be induced to take performance enhancing drugs and engage in academic fraud to raise their grades enough to qualify for admission to a college or university. But ultimately, intercollegiate athletic programs must compete for the services of student-athletes in some way. The NCAA regulations already prohibit schools from competing on a price basis. Eliminating scholarships and replacing them with need-based financial aid does nothing to curb this competition. In addition, eliminating scholarships does nothing to reduce the financial incentives that drive the “win-at-all-costs” environment that Nader seeks to eliminate. Those incentives are generated by multi-billion dollar media rights fees, multi-million dollar bowl appearance payouts, and other media-driven factors on the revenue side. Nader’s plan appears to miss the mark when it comes to eliminating the corrosive effects of money on intercollegiate athletics in the US.