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March Madness: Do Scholarships Leave Student-Athletes Powerless in the NCAA Game?

A scholarship system that once empowered student athletes now leaves them at the mercy of their coaches -- and a multibillion dollar industry.
 
 
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It’s easy to not see the other side of college sports. Especially in March, when the country’s top basketball teams compete for a national championship. There’s the non-stop media coverage, the celebrations and heartbreak on the court, the Cinderella stories and the fall of perennial powerhouses. March Madness is one of the most exciting times in American sports because of its tradition, because of the fact that no one really knows what’s going to happen and because of the sheer athleticism of the teams on the floor. 

So amid all that clamor, it’s easy to overlook less glamorous facts, like this one: A recent study by the National College Player’s Association found that in 2009-10, the poorest basketball and football players generated combined revenues in each sport of more than $30 million but lived $3,000 to $5,000 below the poverty line. 

“It’s a real contradiction to think that the most highly publicized, physically powerful images that we see about students on television could actually hide the fact that they’re among the most vulnerable we see on our campuses,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University.

That vulnerability is by design, thanks in large part to the tenuous hold most student athletes have on the athletic scholarships that enable them to compete in the first place. Over the course of decades, a scholarship system that once empowered student athletes now leaves them at the mercy of their coaches and of a multibillion dollar industry. 

“Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by 1 percent of the athletes,” Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive, told The Atlantic in a scathing take-down of the dirty side of college sports. “Go to the skill positions,” Vaccaro said, meaning college basketball’s stars. “Ninety percent African Americans.” The NCAA made its money off those kids, and so did Vaccaro. So does everyone making money off of Division 1 college sports. 

“A horrible experience”

The dynamics Vaccaro points out aren’t limited to the highest profile players, though.

Currently, there’s a one-year limit on athletic scholarships at NCAA Division 1 schools, and those scholarships must be renewed each year by a team coach. That puts most student athletes in a precarious position, where their scholarships could be taken away on a whim and they’re left with little chance to finish school.

That’s what happened to Jennifer Harris, a former women’s basketball player at the Penn State University. Though Harris was considered one of the team’s top players heading into the 2006 season, she was dismissed from the team—and, by extension, the school—by then-coach Rene Portland. 

Harris accused Portland of kicking her off the team because of Harris’s presumed sexual orientation; Portland had reportedly been enforcing a “no lesbians” policy for decades. “I will not have it in my program,” Portland told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986 when she described what she says to prospective players on recruiting visits. “I bring it up and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved.” She added: “But they would probably go without asking the question otherwise, which is really dumb.”

Harris said that Portland barred her from associating with another student on campus whom she suspected of being a lesbian. The coach then began criticizing Harris for wearing sweatpants too often, admonishing her to wear tighter jeans and to avoid wearing cornrows in her hair.

Harris filed a federal lawsuit against Portland, the school’s athletic director, and the university. But while the case wound its way through the courts and grabbed headlines, she wasn’t able to compete and had to look for another school to finish her degree. She finally settled on James Madison University, where she played on the women’s basketball team, too.

 
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