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Slow Adoption of Multiyear Scholarships is Good News

The initial reaction to the news from Brad Wolverton and Jonah Newman that multi-year scholarships are slowly catching on amongst public BCS schools is likely to be negative. This was supposed to be a landmark moment in the push for greater student-athlete protections. But with just the option, not the mandate, for longer scholarships, their introduction has been slow:

But even colleges that have moved toward the longer agreements have done so modestly. Six institutions signed at least two dozen multiyear agreements this academic year. They include the University of Florida (60), Ohio State University (47), North Carolina State University (40), Michigan State University (30), Arizona State University (27), and Auburn University (27).

But multiyear awards still account for less than one-tenth of all athletic scholarships at most of those institutions.

But this is actually good news. It shows that a real market is developing for multiyear scholarships.

Take the schools listed above. They have given out multiyear scholarships to between one-fourth and one-half of their incoming freshmen class. This is a different type of commitment for those prospects than prospects who signed one-year renewable scholarships. As the article points out, many schools adopting multiyear scholarships have done so in order to pick up or avoid losing a commitment from a recruit.

Recruits are beginning to understand their power in the negotiation as well as the tools they can use to get the best deal. Hopefully as the market in recruiting and athletic scholarships continues to mature, more recruits and schools will understand their bargaining positions. This encourages the best situation for athletes: when the agreement they sign is the same one that both they and their coach intend and understand.

Contrast this with setting scholarships at any one length. Under the old one-year maximum, coaches were flat out lying to prospects and their families. They would say that a one-year agreement was really for four years, and that as long as the athlete stayed eligible and out of trouble, the scholarship would be renewed. Then when the athlete was injured or did not live up to expectations, the grant-in-aid would be nonrenewed.

Requiring four- or five-year scholarships creates a similar situation. The coach assures the athlete that they have a four-year agreement, because look, there it is in a written contract. Then when the athlete does not pan out, the coach begins looking for ways to get out from under the commitment. That leads to deliberately confusing scholarship agreements and team/department rules which are inconsistently enforced.

The fact that Illinois is giving almost every incoming athlete a multiyear agreement does not tell the whole story. How long are those scholarships? In what way are they different from a one-year agreement? And most importantly, how good is Illinois’ process for making sure athletes are adequately protected from having their scholarship cancelled despite the “guarantee”.

This is also a flaw in AB475, the latest student-athlete protection legislation in California. While AB475 would require California’s Pac-12 schools to provide five-year scholarships to all athletes, it does not require any additional process beyond what the NCAA mandates to determine if the cancellation of those scholarships were “for cause”. SB 1525, another piece of California legislation affecting athlete scholarships passed last year, overlooked the same issue.

In the absence of national rules regarding scholarship agreements, athletic department and team rules, and student-athlete appeal procedures, a healthy market is the next best option. An athlete who chooses a one-year agreement over a five-year agreement has much weaker grounds to object when the one-year agreement is not renewed. The coach who offered an athlete four years instead of one has no one to blame but themselves if the athlete does not pan out and the coach is stuck paying for his or her education.

There are also more changes the NCAA could make short of simply mandating longer scholarships. National Letters of Intent could require a minimum of two years. Whether a coach can restrict a transfer could be tied to the remaining years on the scholarship. The NCAA could even acknowledge that some coaches will run off athletes and find an equitable way to let them keep their scholarships if that happens.

But the progress so far is steady, even if it has not resulted in universal five-year scholarships. The biggest challenge is to make sure athletes know multiyear scholarships are available, so they and the coaches recruiting them know what the options are. At the very least, then athletes know what they are signing up for when a coach only offers one year of financial aid.

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