https://www.collegesportsscholarships.com/student-athlete-ncaa-educationThe Advocate, based in Baton Rouge, LA, has a story about Tulane University’s Legislative Scholarship program. The article asks what sounds like a simple question:
If the school were found to be using the legislative scholarship program to augment its allotment of athletic scholarships, Tulane could face sanctions from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The article acknowledges that NCAA financial aid rules are confusing and the nature of the legislative scholarship program. But there are even more twists and turns than even the authors expect.
Take the statement above for example. The problem with such an accusation is that every equivalency sport (where partial scholarships are awarded and the total amount of athletics aid awarded to all student-athletes is the primary limit) uses the institution’s other financial aid programs to stretch the NCAA scholarship limit as far as it will go. If an institution has a scholarship for first generation college students with at least a 3.0 GPA, you can bet coaches will look a little harder at any prospect which fits those criteria. Done well, it can even be a positive when coaches take into account more than athletic ability when deciding who to recruit.
The issue is when targeting recruits that qualify for schoarships goes too far and instead scholarships that should have nothing to do with athletics are being targeted at athletes. That’s what happened with Pepperdine’s major violation that the NCAA decided last year:
From 2007-08, the university’s financial aid office “prioritized” students demonstrating particular gifts or talents when awarding non-athletic scholarships. Athletics participation was one of the factors considered to be a gift or talent, so the scholarships awarded should have been, but were not, counted toward team scholarship totals.
On the face of it, Tulane’s Legislative Scholarship is not an athletically related scholarship program. Students who meet certain academic criteria and fill out an additional application are eligible to be sponsored by a member of Louisiana’s legislature for a full tuition scholarship.
In addition, the academic requirements of the Legislative Scholarship mean it can count as an academic honor award. Unlike other types of institutional financial aid, academic honor awards can be mixed with athletic scholarships without counting like athletic scholarship. Say a baseball player would be able to receive a Legislative Scholarship that covers tuition and fees and an athletic scholarship that covers room, board, and books. Only the athletic scholarship for room, board, and books would count against the team’s equivalency limit, rather than the total of the two scholarships.
There are a couple of warning signs in the Legislative Scholarship language itself. Under a processes called “Open Competition”, a legislator can let Tulane make the decision. The university says it uses the following criteria in the open competition:
The student’s high school record and standardized test scores, grade point average, academic standing, participation in extracurricular activities or community service, demonstrated leadership ability, and the recommendation of the high school guidance counselor, principal, or headmaster. (emphasis added)
Extracurricular activities and leadership ability are highlighted because they are two of the easiest ways that athletic ability and athletics participation slip into the decision making for a scholarship that is not related to athletics. Athletics is on of the most visible extracurricular activities and being a team captain is a great demonstration of athletic ability.
Even if Open Competition is not used and the legislator makes the decision, that open another can of worms. Like when the legislator, not Tulane, targets athletes:
State Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, who sponsored Middleton for two of the last four years, said he, too, asked Tulane for help in choosing a scholarship recipient. Unlike Murray, however, he specifically asked Tulane to send him the names of qualified baseball players. The school has obliged.
“I’ve tried to help out the baseball team, to give them an extra seat at the table,” he said.
“I’ve always tried to take care of the baseball team. They probably only have 10 scholarships. I’ll tell them, ‘Send me a name.’”
There is certainly an argument to be made by Tulane if from a group of applicants, a legislator takes it upon him- or herself to single out athletes. That is difficult to monitor and even harder to prove. But much of the benefit of the doubt is lost when the school provides a list of just athletes (athletes from only one sport to boot) at the request of the legislator. It is almost impossible to argue that the scholarship is not athletically related at that point.
There are a lot of red herrings in the article. It does not matter if the legislators are connected to Tulane or not. The proportion of athletes to all students or one sport to all athletes might be relevant in Division III, but this is Division I. And the NCAA (meaning the national office) does not review every student-athlete’s financial aid. That is primarily the responsibility of the institution’s compliance office and perhaps the conference office when reviewing squad lists.
But the quote from Rep. Lopinto deserves an investigation from Tulane’s compliance office if one has not yet occurred. It is exactly the situation that would give most compliance professionals nightmares when thinking about such a program. Outside individuals making decisions about significant scholarships without regular education in NCAA rules is a recipe for problems.