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It Takes a Village To Cut a Scholarship

The story of how Jared Drew is leaving the Saint Louis men’s basketball team will be spun as one of the improper leverage and power of coaches. That is the angle Eamonn Brennan took, mentioning Mike Krzyzewski’s almost $10 million in compensation from 2011 compared to Drew’s one-year renewable scholarship. Coach K obviously had nothing to do with Jared Drew’s situation. But in many cases similar to Drew’s, there is plenty of blame to go around.

I disagree strongly with Brennan’s statement from 2010 that everyone agrees that players are frequently run off from teams and that everyone agrees this is bad. There is no widespread agreement on what constitutes “running a player off”. If a coach tells a player he is unlikely to get playing time but the school intends to honor his scholarship through graduation, and the player decides to leave, was he run off? Fans and even the media will defend the practice of recruiting over players, ushering them out the door, even the concept of the one-year renewable grant-in-aid itself.

In this new era of multi-year scholarship agreements and the market that is slowly growing around them, there is likely to be even less agreement. Say a recruit asks for a four- or five-year scholarship and the coach offers only a one-year renewable agreement. If the prospect signs anyway, how much right does he have to object when his scholarship ends after one year? Is the prospect on notice that he has no guarantee?

Recent legislative changes have little to do with cases like Jared Drew’s. Running off players is comprised of so many different behaviors and tactics that finding common themes is difficult. Drew’s situation involves one of the more extreme versions of running a player off: canceling or nonrenewing a player’s scholarship and first notifying him he is off the team by doing so.

Brennan is incorrect that Jim Crews or Chris May have unchecked authority to cancel an athlete’s scholarship on a whim. Whenever an athlete with eligibility remaining has his or her scholarship cancelled, reduced, or non-renewed, they are entitled to notice and an appeal:

The institution’s regular financial aid authority¬†shall notify the student-athlete in writing of the opportunity for a hearing when institutional financial aid based in any degree on athletics ability is to be reduced or canceled during the period of the award, or is reduced or not renewed for the following academic year.¬†The institution shall have established reasonable procedures for promptly hearing such a request and shall not delegate the responsibility for conducting the hearing to the university’s athletics department or its faculty athletics committee. The written notification of the opportunity for a hearing shall include a copy of the institution’s established policies and procedures for conducting the required hearing, including the deadline by which a student-athlete must request such a hearing.

When the system works properly, representatives of the larger university community (common participants include financial aid staff and faculty athletics representatives) are supposed to provide a measure of protection to athletes. When the process breaks down, unchecked authority is delegated to the athletic director or coach, except now with the approval of the university itself. The athletic department is no longer going rouge when it cuts scholarships arbitrarily; it has at least the implied backing of the university’s faculty, administration, and leadership.

Appeals by athletes in revenue sports are rare though, because most just want to play. And if Jared Drew or any other athlete fought their scholarship cancellation and won, all they win is the scholarship. They do not get a place on the team or a guarantee of playing time. If a school uses cutting someone’s scholarship to get rid of a student-athlete, only the student part can be appealed.

As long as that distinction (and legal precedent) exists, athletes can and will be runoff. Ironclad five-year scholarships that can only be cancelled via court order cannot prevent players from being pushed out the door in search of a place to play, not just go to school. Cutting an athlete from a team, even if his scholarship is guaranteed, can be as devastating academically as revoking his aid and forcing him to transfer.

Cutting a scholarship purely for performance reasons rarely happens unless the athletic department is confident that it will win an appeal. That typically requires an appeals committee with a history of rubber stamping athletic department decisions. In that case, the problem is not just the one-year renewable scholarship or the whims of a coach or athletic director. At least part of the blame rests with the rest of the university, which is charged with holding athletics in check.

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