Shaking Up the Athletic Lottery

ESPN commentator Dick Vitale described the NCAA transfer portal as “out of control” in an April 9th tweet referring to the over 1,200 players who were in the portal looking for new programs to play for. The system of NCAA athletics is undergoing a new shake up where control seems to be up for grabs. The COVID-19 pandemic has given many players an extra year of eligibility and the adoption of the NCAA’s one-time transfer waiver rule has created a logjam where there are many more players with college basketball talent than there are scholarship spots. According to the NCAA’s website, the transfer waiver “applies only to students who transferred from another Division I school, not transfers from other NCAA divisions or schools outside the NCAA. The regular transfer waiver process is available to non-Division I transfer student-athletes.”

Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus Bright

This has created a merit-based lottery system where the cream of the crop prospects in terms of those who are viewed as having the potential to contribute right away to a team’s success are receiving scholarship placements and others who may be viewed as needing some additional time to develop like high school prospects are being left out of athletic scholarship opportunities with increasing frequency. Some high school seniors who had stellar seasons and would ordinarily be recruited by major programs aren’t getting scholarships offers from any school. Scholarship slots are just not in abundance. That is the randomness of this year’s athletic lottery.

The term “athletic lottery” is not intended to diminish the dedication and hard work that athletes put toward honing their skills and talent. It is a reference to the small percentage of athletes who get college athletic scholarships. The combination of NCAA rule changes and the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an intrusion that has upset the normal equilibrium of college athletics. The window of opportunity for change is open and it is the dawn of new era in college athletics for everyone involved.

Major adaptations will need to be incorporated as people adjust to the seismic changes that are taking place and will take place. One needed change that will hopefully be on the horizon is a shift away from a disproportionate reliance on the “athletic lottery”. The traditional lottery where large amounts of money is awarded to a few lucky people does not have the same level of overreliance that the athletic lottery has. People in large part do not solely focus on winning that lottery. Those who play surely daydream about what it would be like to win, but they do not abandon other routes to success in the way that far too many young people do in their pursuit of careers in professional athletics.

Sports has long been a fixture in American life generally and in communities of color more specifically. One could argue that there is seemingly more at stake on average for Black athletes because of the economic condition of Black communities in the United States. The cultural embeddedness of the athletic route and the sports dream in the lives of young Black men is something that is taken for granted in many cases. For the small few who make it to play in college or the pros, a glimmer of hope for the masses is given.

This hope is leaned on, embraced, and used in some cases to cover up the reality of an athletic lottery system that has few opportunities available in comparison to the great number of people who are vying for slots. According to data from the NCAA, out of 540,000 high school basketball participants 3.5% go on to play in the NCAA with 1.0% going to Division I schools, 1.0% to Division II schools, and 1.4% to Division III schools. Out of 18,816 participants in men’s basketball and 4,181 draft eligible athletes 1.2% (52) compete in major professional athletics.

Out of 1,006,013 high school football participants 7.3% go on to play in the NCAA with 2.9% going to Division I schools, 1.9% to Division II schools, and 2.5% to Division III schools. Out of 73,712 participants in football and 16,380 draft eligible athletes 1.6% (254) compete in major professional athletics. The athletic lottery is based on many people buying into the belief that they too can make it even if the odds are slim. “Making it” would mean the attainment of an extreme level of external value and approval being ascribed to them. This is a part of the intangible allure of the athletic lottery.

There is no doubt that participation in sports does afford many young people opportunities that they may not have gotten if they did not play sports. An athletic scholarship can be a means to a college degree. The right degree gives them opportunities in the workforce even if it does not lead to being a professional athlete. An argument can be made, however, that these same student-athletes could have garnered similar opportunities if they were pushed towards academic endeavors with an equivalent level of intensity and celebration that is often attached to sports.

There is no harm in young people going after their sports dreams, but they should be made aware of the lottery like aspect of the process. Their dream athletic program will likely only sign one or two players at their position out of the entire World. This reality hits too many prospective college student-athletes too late. Too many have ignored or neglected their academic development in favor of going all in on their aspiration to play at the highest level of college athletics.

This is the time to utilize the crisis that some student-athletes are going through in terms of not getting the recruitment that they anticipated to intervene in their lives and shift the culture for the student-athletes who will be coming behind them. This shake up of the athletic lottery can be a catalyst to cause student-athletes who were previously limiting themselves to only seeking fulfillment and purpose in the athletic realm to understand that they can go hard and achieve excellence both in sports and in the classroom.

Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and educational administrator.