Academic and Athletic Scholarships Are Not the Same

Today's post on oversigning raised a debate in the comment section that often follows close behind when the topic is raised: isn't pulling a player's athletic scholarship for not playing up to the coach's standards comparable to a student losing his or her academic scholarship for not making high enough grades?

I wrote a lot of this in that comment section, but I think this is an important enough topic to make a whole new post about it. The short answer is no. The long answer is as follows.

Academic scholarship requirements are far less subjective than athletic scholarship expectations. You know ahead of time what’s required to keep an academic scholarship, and you can change majors to keep it if you struggle in your chosen field of study. You get periodic progress reports in the form of graded work and exams to know where you stand in each class.

A coach can tell athletes that they are doing well all along and then hit them out of the blue with the fact that their scholarships won’t get renewed. That’s a completely different situation than with academic scholarships. Athletes getting cut out of the blue doesn't happen often, but the point still stands. A scholarship contingent on measurable and quantifiable academic progress is completely different than a scholarship contingent on the subjective judgment of one person.

That's the broad reason why academic and athletic scholarships are different. Here are some more specific reasons:

  • An athlete's options for transferring and keeping a scholarship are limited by whether or not his current school releases him from his scholarship. A school can even refuse to give a reason for why it won't release a player from scholarship, thereby preventing him from knowing what he can do to rectify the situation. There is no comparable situation in academic scholarships, where one school can prevent a student from getting an academic scholarship from another school.
  • When a new head coach and/or coordinator is hired, a player might not fit the new system. That player can then be cut through no fault of his own. Academic scholarships have no equivalent when professors, deans, or administrators change.
  • The head coach can oversign and might need to reduce roster size right before the deadline. A player can then be cut through no fault of his own. Schools within a university can’t "oversign" students on academic scholarships. They might lose funding and therefore be forced to cut some scholarships, but that's not the same as oversigning. Academic scholarship oversigning can happen. Thanks to John Infante for pointing this out.
  • Past good grades count towards an overall GPA no matter what. Those offering academic scholarships cannot simply disregard them if they so choose. Coaches can disregard past good performance if they want to when choosing whether or not to not to renew a football scholarship.
  • An injury that is no fault of the player can cause his effectiveness at his sport to decrease and leave him susceptible to being cut. Think about a speedy guy who tears an ACL or a cannon-armed quarterback or pitcher who tears a rotator cuff. Medical issues can cause a student’s academic effectiveness to drop, but universities have contingency programs to accommodate students who go through such issues (and therefore help them not lose their scholarships).
  • If a student with an academic scholarship has trouble, he or she can often change majors (depending on the scholarship type) to find a more suitable path of study and still keep the scholarship. The vast majority of athletes cannot just switch sports to keep an athletic scholarship.

Those are just a few specific examples of how academic and athletic scholarships diverge. I could come up with more if I wanted to.

The thing to remember is that these are scholarships we’re talking about: grants that exist to help people attend school and work towards a degree. If you’re going to completely throw out the window any consideration of the fact that these are students working towards a diploma, then college athletics should be broken off from universities entirely into professional minor leagues.

ADDENDUM

I should mention that I'm not in favor of making it so athletic scholarships can only be ended for things like career ending injuries (which are already covered under medical disqualification scholarships) or arrests. If a player doesn't respect the leadership, blows off practice, or becomes a serial loafer for reasonable values of "loafer", then pulling the scholarship should be on the table.

However, I do think there should be some kind of paper trail to prevent coaches from solving their high school talent evaluation shortcomings or oversigning issues by suddenly revoking scholarships. If a player isn't performing to expectations, there needs to be written proof that the player is aware of it long before a scholarship gets taken away. There also should be some kind of provision to keep players with a history of non-career ending injuries from being cut, because there's little to nothing they can do to prevent or reverse their loss of effectiveness.

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