I went to college on an athletic scholarship. I played tennis and was all-conference for four years.
During the mid-’60s, I had scholarship offers to play tennis, and I chose Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. I chose JCSU because I had friends that attended the school and the tennis coach presented the school in a positive light.
The decision to attend Smith was certainly a defining moment in my young life. I was 17 years old and the thought of going to college on a tennis scholarship was pretty exciting. The idea of attending college on an athletic scholarship appealed to me since some of the guys in my neighborhood had similar opportunities. James Arthur Price—Price, as we young guys called him—played football on scholarship at North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University; and Ray Joyner played basketball on scholarship at Lincoln University (Pa.) Guys who graduated from my high school also received athletic scholarships to schools such as Purdue University, University of Minnesota and New York University. Guys like us were fortunate to be on athletic scholarships because it lifted the financial burden of paying for college off our parents.
During my college days of playing tennis, if you wanted to watch us, it was free. However, it was different for basketball and football games at JCSU as there was a charge for non-students to attend the games.
Big schools like those which I named above had thousands of fans that paid and attended their athletic contests. Were student athletes at some of these schools being paid with money and other gifts back in the day? If I had to guess, I would say there was some illegal stuff going on in selective cases. Were student athletes at smaller schools being paid under the table to play? I would say no.
The idea of paying Division I college football is espoused by some players and coaches today. The old ball coach, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, seems to be in favor of some type of compensation package for players. When you see stadiums at Alabama, Ohio State and Florida filled to capacity on Saturday, it does give you reason to pause.
However, the athletic scholarship purist would argue that the scholarship should be enough since you are getting a free college education. So, yes, the stadiums are packed and, yes, student athletes are getting a free college education, but isn’t there more to this issue? Yes, there is. The athletic budgets for some of these schools are huge and are growing more each year, yet student athletes are not benefiting from them. They still have the same scholarship dollars.
If you believe in the notion of paying the student athlete, shouldn’t women be paid as well? For example, programs at UConn and Tennessee have lots of fans in the stands at their basketball games. The NCAA Division I basketball tournament for both men and women is easily a multimillion-dollar money maker. I would suspect that, if you don’t bring female student athletes into this paradigm, then some type of legal challenge will be on the horizon. Another piece of this puzzle is what happens to student athletes at schools a step below Division I? They want to be paid, too. What about NAIA schools? They want their share as well.
Though paying college student athletes may be a noble aspiration for some, the ramifications may have far-reaching negative consequences. I believe it will be some time before an equitable solution can be worked out.
Still, at the end of the day, having an athletic scholarship is a privilege, even today.