Expectations Lose to Reality of Sports Scholarships

The following are excerpts from an article published in the New York Times on Mar. 10, 2008, by Bill Pennington, with contributions from Griffin Palmer.

At youth sporting events, the sidelines have become the ritual community meeting place, where families sit in rows of folding chairs aligned like church pews. These congregations are diverse in spirit but unified by one gospel: heaven is your child receiving a college athletic scholarship.

Parents sacrifice weekends and vacations to tournaments and specialty camps, spending thousands each year in this quest for the Holy Grail.

But the expectations of parents and athletes can differ sharply from the financial and cultural realities of college athletics, according to an analysis by The New York Times of previously undisclosed data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and interviews with dozens of college officials.

Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average NCAA athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition and room and board for NCAA institutions often cost between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

"People run themselves ragged to play on three teams at once so they could always reach the next level," said Margaret Barry of Laurel, Md., whose daughter is a scholarship swimmer at the University of Delaware. "They're going to be disappointed when they learn that if they're very lucky, they will get a scholarship worth 15 percent of the $40,000 college bill. What's that? $6,000?"

Within the NCAA data, last collected in 2003-04 and based on NCAA calculations from an internal study, are other statistical insights about the distribution of money for the 138,216 athletes who received athletic aid in Division-I and Division-II.

  • Men received 57 percent of all scholarship money, but in 11 of the 14 sports with men's and women's teams, the women's teams averaged higher amounts per athlete.
  • On average, the best-paying sport was neither football nor men's or women's basketball. It was men's ice hockey, at $21,755. Next was women's ice hockey ($20,540).
  • The lowest overall average scholarship total was in men's riflery ($3,608), and the lowest for women was in bowling ($4,899). Baseball was the second-lowest men's sport ($5,806).

Many students and their parents think of playing a sport not because of scholarship money, but because it is stimulating and might even give them a leg up in the increasingly competitive process of applying to college. But coaches and administrators, the gatekeepers of the recruiting system, said in interviews that parents and athletes who hoped for such money were much too optimistic and that they were unprepared to effectively navigate the system. The athletes, they added, were the ones who ultimately suffered.

Coaches surveyed at two representative NCAA Division I institutions — Villanova University outside Philadelphia and the University of Delaware — told tales of rejecting top prospects because their parents were obstinate in scholarship negotiations.

"I dropped a good player because her dad was a jerk — all he ever talked to me about was scholarship money," said Joanie Milhous, the field hockey coach at Villanova. "I don't need that in my program. I recruit good, ethical parents as much as good, talented kids because, in the end, there's a connection between the two."

The best-laid plans of coaches do not always bring harmony on teams, however, and scholarships can be at the heart of the unrest. Who is getting how much tends to get around like the salaries in a workplace. The result — scholarship envy — can divide teams.

The chase for a scholarship has another side that is rarely discussed. Although those athletes who receive athletic aid are viewed as the ultimate winners, they typically find the demands on their time, minds and bodies in college even more taxing than the long journey to get there.

There are 6 a.m. weight-lifting sessions, exhausting practices, team meetings, study halls and long trips to games. Their varsity commitments often limit the courses they can take. Athletes also share a frustrating feeling of estrangement from the rest of the student body, which views them as the privileged ones. In this setting, it is not uncommon for first- and second-year athletes to relinquish their scholarships.

“Kids who have worked their whole life trying to get a scholarship think the hard part is over when they get the college money,” said Tim Poydenis, a senior at Villanova receiving $3,000 a year to play baseball. “They don’t know that it’s a whole new monster when you get here. Yes, all the hard work paid off. And now you have to work harder.”