ENGLISH: Why four-year scholarships?

Published 9:02 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2012

By Jim English

A lot of discussion has surfaced in recent weeks regarding collegiate football scholarships. More specifically, the debate has centered on the length of scholarships offered the potential college athletes.

I must confess that I did not realize until a few years ago that a college football scholarship is not a four-year contract, but for all intents and purposes is instead a one-year renewable deal. Of course the intent and assumption of both the athlete and the institution are that the athlete has the opportunity to remain for his four years of eligibility, but it is not a guarantee. But it is, nevertheless, a rare occasion that an athlete’s scholarship is not renewed each year.

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Questions and debate began to arise especially in our neck of the woods following a recent local article which announced the intention of a nearby university to begin offering four-year scholarships to the athletes they recruit. The headline of the article further fueled the intensity of the debate by implying that the school, and its coach, were somehow exhibiting more “class” than their rival school by offering four years instead of one.

Of course, if you follow that line of thinking, that would imply that all the other hundreds of schools who still offer the standard scholarships were lacking in class as well.

While each school clearly has the right to make its own decisions, according to what it feels is in its own best interests, it seems to me there are some obvious potential pitfalls in attempting to guarantee four years to a student-athlete.

The most obvious question that arises is, why is there a need to offer a four-year scholarship? In the case of the school at the heart of the debate, it seems to be a perceived opportunity to gain a recruiting advantage over others schools competing for the top athletes.

It appears to me that the only reason an athlete would find the four-year deal more attractive would be a concern that the athlete may not be worthy of having his scholarship renewed otherwise. But being realistic for a moment……do you believe any of these “blue-chip” athletes think for one minute that any coach would ever consider not keeping him on the team? Most of these guys seem to think they are “God’s gift” to football, so I don’t believe that thought even enters their minds. And obviously the collegiate coaches don’t expect to ever need to cut them from the roster.

And let’s face it, the majority of elite high school players have their sights set on the NFL, not on four years of education. If their collegiate careers go as planned and expected, they hope to leave for the NFL in less than four years anyway. What happens to the four-year guarantee then?

Suppose one of these “can’t miss” athletes does miss, and doesn’t live up to the hype. It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s just poor work ethic, other times it’s off-field issues with drugs or other criminal activity. How do you get rid of someone like that if he’s holding a four-year guaranteed scholarship? I’m sure there are lawyers already drooling at the prospect of taking on those cases.

One of the inherent advantages to the current scholarship system is that it encourages a strong work ethic. If there is a possibility of not having your scholarship renewed for the following year, you will be more likely to work hard to retain that scholarship. But if you know you’re guaranteed four years, where’s the motivation, especially if you’ve been led to believe you’re already better than most? Most often, being given everything without having to work for it breeds laziness, not a good work ethic.

And let’s not forget that if the school is bound by the contract, so is the student-athlete. Suppose a Trent Richardson has a guaranteed four-year scholarship with the University of Alabama, and decides after his third year he is ready to enter the NFL draft? Since he has a four-year scholarship, can’t Nick Saban say, “Nope. Sorry Trent….you signed a four-year scholarship, so we want you to stay one more year to give us a better chance at back-to-back championships.”

The fact is, if a player signs a scholarship and does what’s expected of him, he’ll have the opportunity to stay on the team for as many of his years of eligibility as he wants. It just seems to me that the concept of a four-year football scholarship hasn’t been all that well thought out, and the potential problems that come along with it far outweigh the perceived advantages.