Athletic Scholarships and Financial Abuse

“College athletes are living the dream. They get to go to the best schools, play a sport they love, and never actually attend classes. All for free.”

Oh boy, if I had a dime for every time I heard that line as a college athlete, I might be able to reimburse the NCAA for the money it payed lobbying to Congress last year.  

But contrary to popular belief, most college athletes aren’t living a dream–they’re living in poverty, and their only means of financial stability lies in their athletic scholarships. This is problematic, because athletic scholarships are renewable, meaning that they expire at the end of every year, and their consistency is never guaranteed. For example, an athlete earning a 50% scholarship her freshman year might earn 30% her sophomore year if her coach decides to cut her scholarship. There are no NCAA bylaws that regulate the fluidity of athletic funding.

The NCAA also does not ban coaches from revoking athletic scholarships, and coaches can pull a scholarship for virtually any reason. So college coaches can use their athletes’ financial instability to make them overwork themselves and train through injuries or risk losing their scholarship (more on that later). This is a form of economic abuse, in which a person in power controls another’s access to financial resources within the confines of a relationship. For reference, these practices are present in 99% of domestic violence cases.

Athletic scholarships are about control, and the nature of athletic funding creates massive power gaps between coaches and athletes. In spite of the NCAA’s insistence that athletic scholarships can’t be revoked due to injuries and other extraneous circumstances, no formal policy exists that specifically prohibits coaches from doing so. And that gives coaches leverage over their rosters of 18-22-year-old financially illiterate/unstable adults.

Several prominent case studies of athletic abuse involve scholarship threats. At the University of Maryland, DJ Durkin’s staff called football players “thieves” if they weren’t earning their scholarships (a.k.a. pushing themselves to their absolute limits in an abusive training room culture). At the University of Nebraska and Rutgers University, head softball coaches Rhonda Revelle and Kristen Butler, respectively, both used scholarship threats to “encourage” (coerce) their athletes to train through injuries. All three of these coaches are still employed.

It’s easy for coaches to get away with coercing their athletes: there are no rules in the NCAA’s Division 1 Manual that prohibit coach abuse, and the renewable nature of athletic scholarships encourages this kind of behavior. Coaches are allowed, not required, to offer four-year scholarship deals, but why would they do that? Coaches would have no means of controlling their athletes if athletic funding was guaranteed. So financial abuse abounds in the NCAA because college athletes have no financial stability under the current structure.

If this sounds hypocritical, that’s because it is. Especially considering that Michigan State University just signed its football program’s newest head coach, Mel Tucker, to a six-year, $14.75 million contract. If a coach (who comes to MSU boasting a 5-7 record during his brief tenure at the University of Colorado) can guarantee multiyear, multimillion dollar funding, so should the athletes who employ him.   

Tough Love Part 1: What Does Abusive Coaching Look Like?

That’s a good question, and one that the college sports world doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive answer to. Sometimes, it’s hard to draw a line between tough coaching and abuse in athletic environments where athletes are conditioned to endure physical pain and tough things out mentally on a daily basis. However, almost everyone can agree that ex-Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin was an abusive coach.

For those unfamiliar with Durkin, ESPN’s full account of his abuse is located here. The Sparknotes version is that Durkin cultivated a team based on fear, threats, and intimidation. The abuse was so severe that one of his players died during training, after which, Durkin was placed on administrative leave, reinstated, and then reluctantly fired by the University of Maryland only after students protested his reinstatement in October 2018.

In spite of his track record, Durkin was hired by University of Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin to serve as an assistant coach on Thursday. I wish I was making that up, but it’s clear that Kiffin and the athletic department at Ole Miss either don’t view Durkin as an abuser, or they don’t care. And since the NCAA does not define (or ban) abusive coaching, it often goes unchecked and unpunished, even if the physical and mental health ramifications are life-altering.

Abuse in athletic settings is hard to identify for many reasons, mainly because it is often not physical. Coaches would be foolish to physically assault athletes who are almost always physically stronger than them. Although some of Durkin’s abuse was physical in nature, most of it was not, which makes it that much harder to identify. So, my next few posts will cover key elements of coach abuse (scholarship threats, body shaming, verbal abuse, and overtraining/physical abuse), as well as the physical and mental health effects exhibited in athletes who experience them.

I don’t want to end this post with “happy” new year, but may 2020 be the year universities stop hiring coaches who should arguably be in jail, and hold abusers accountable instead of offering them second chances.

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Body Over Mind

“Mind over body.” I cannot tell you how many times that simple phrase has been reiterated to me during training when I wanted to quit. When an athlete’s muscles and lungs are begging to stop during training and competition, the athlete’s mind has to say “absolutely not.” The persuasion of the mind must overcome the weakness of the body for athletes to grow. That’s how mental toughness works, and it’s a good thing in the appropriate doses.

That being said, my title isn’t a typo. Off-the-track/court/field, etc., athletes are wired to take care of our bodies over our minds. Here’s an example: I graduated college with 1.) a hamstring injury, and 2.) anxiety. Guess which one I took care of first?

The hamstring. Because I, as an athlete, knew exactly what to do to heal it.

After graduation, I took two weeks off of running and called up a physical therapist right away. It was a stubborn injury that took about a year to heal, but I was relentless because I knew what to do.

I knew anatomy. I knew kinesiology. I was familiar with sports medicine. So I got to work healing my hamstring, thinking that my mind would follow suit and calm down too.

I thought that when college running stopped, “anxiety” would stop too. And I use quotation marks there, because I knew something was off in my mind, but I didn’t have a word for it at the time. The language simply didn’t exist for athlete Katie, but I had plenty of words to describe what was going on with my hamstring.

My injury had a name: high hamstring tendinopathy. I understood the anatomy behind it too: my biceps femoris was strained from chronic overuse paired with weak hips, and that long hamstring muscle was pulling on the tendon located at the ischial tuberosity at the end of my pelvis. Sitting on it, let alone running, was excruciating, and healing it wasn’t a walk in the park, either. But I pursued physical therapy because that was a natural thought process for an injured athlete: when your body hurts, you take care of it.

As an athlete, I knew all of the complicated anatomical terms associated with my injury, but I had no idea what anxiety was. Now, I do, thanks to my therapist. But it took me two years of dealing with anxiety post-NCAA to do anything about it. Because athletes are wired to take care of the body over the mind.

That’s a problem. And I’ll talk about that more in my next post. Stay tuned!

I Was Mary Cain

(This post is in reference to Mary Cain’s New York Times video op-ed about the abuse she suffered under ex-Nike head coach Alberto Salazar, which you can watch here. TW: eating disorders, abuse)

In many ways, I was Mary Cain.

My body was weighed, measured, picked apart, scrutinized, and never good enough. I was always too big or too small, or worse: made into a prototype; a weapon that directly contributed to the abuse of others. Coaches used to point to me during workouts and tell my teammates things along the lines of: “If you were as small as Katie, maybe you’d be as fast as her.” Mind you, these were the same coaches who demanded I gained weight and critiqued everything that went on my plate at team dinners. These mixed signals sent two clear messages: 1.) my body would never be good enough, and 2.) my body was a potential danger to the health and well-being of people I cared about. 

I was degraded for poor performances, for hesitating to train through injuries, and for running badly when I did decide to gut it out after being coerced into pushing myself too far. Sometimes I was given the silent treatment after bad outings, which was even worse. I’m still reeling from what was said (and not said) to me on crowded tracks and private offices, but therapy is going well. 

I was publicly weighed in training rooms, body shamed, and belittled for an eating disordered I had little control over. I also watched my teammates endure the emotional trauma of being housed in bodies that were, like mine, never good enough, either too big, or too small in a sport that demands that women shrink themselves as much as possible, but not too much, of course. Because we knew we were to solely to blame when our bodies inevitably failed us like mine did.

I lost my natural period for seven years, and was a walking injury in college: I dealt with everything from tendinitis to muscle pulls, to functional scoliosis. The only injury I (miraculously) didn’t accrue was a stress fracture, probably because I took birth control to artificially elevate my dangerously low estrogen levels in order to protect my bone density. At any rate, my team more than made up for my lack of stress fractures with breaks of their own, as did Mary Cain. She broke five bones during her time at Nike while competing in a non-contact sport. Alberto Salazar didn’t have to lay a hand on her to physically abuse her, and neither did the coaches who injured my teammates and me vicariously.

The worst part of it all? I was complicit: I never spoke up about what was being done to myself and my teammates. It might be illogical, but I can’t help but think that I could have done something to stop all of this while it was happening. But I stayed silent because I was determined to tough it out like a good athlete. Looking back now, I can see that I was too desensitized to view any of it as abnormal anyway, but I still live with the guilt of failing my team every single day. In my mind, I was an abuser of sorts, too.

But Katie, if it was so bad, why didn’t you just quit? And Mary Cain could have walked out at any time too, right?

That’s not how this works. Abusive relationships are gripping, especially when money is involved. 

Mary Cain chose to run for Nike professionally instead of competing in college, so her sport was her livelihood. She was eighteen years old when Salazar got a hold of her, with no job experience other than running fast and long. It doesn’t help that athletes, especially endurance runners, have an unreal pain tolerance, too. Mary Cain wasn’t wired to fold and she literally could not quit her job as a professional runner. Her survival depended on her ability to endure trauma.

Scholarship athletes competing under the NCAA (in all sports) are placed in an eerily similar scenario. Vulnerable 18-22 year-olds who are wholly dependent on their coaches, conditioned to endure pain, and terrified of getting their scholarships revoked are easy targets for abuse. If a coach can dangle a scholarship over their athletes’ heads, that coach can get an entire team to do just about anything.

The NCAA wants everyone to believe that college athletes aren’t university employees, but that’s not the reality when, like Mary Cain, college athletes compete for their keep. We might not run for Nike, but that’s why we “just do it”: Quitting simply isn’t an option when scholarships are involved, regardless of the systemic abuse that takes place under the governing bodies that oversee college athletes. And I wish fans cared about that as much as they care about bringing back NCAA video games.

Fair Pay and the Things That Can’t be Taxed

Last week, the NCAA announced it would be modifying its amateurism rules to allow college athletes “opportunities” to “benefit” from use of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL), just days after the Fair Pay to Play Act (SB-206) was officially passed into law. It’s an announcement that’s been regarded as unprecedented by many, but the language surrounding it is concerning. Nowhere does the NCAA’s statement mention money or compensation, and the NCAA made it clear that it still won’t consider college athletes university employees.

Even so, the internet exploded, and the digital conversation surrounding the Fair Pay to Play Act has been unfolding for months over the course of its passing. Prominent sports figures have been supporting SB-206 for months, and many believe the NCAA’s reaction is a direct result of the bill officially passing into law. Even politicians who have never expressed an interest in college sports have been following the ordeal, from Mitt Romney to Elizabeth Warren, to Richard Burr, who tweeted:

“If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to ‘cash in’ to income taxes.”

There’s a lot wrong with this tweet, but that’s another article for another day. Still, Burr highlights why SB-206 has generated the kind of conversation it has: athletic revenue is taxable. NCAA policy usually doesn’t interest people outside of college sports, and as someone who researches it, I can tell you that I routinely wear out my college sports fan friends by diving 400 pages deep into the Division 1 Manual in the middle of a football game. That’s more than understandable. I’d like to enjoy the game too, and I have to go through extensive mental gymnastics to do it.

That being said, it’s undeniable that the Fair Pay to Play Act and the NCAA’s reactions have been headline-grabbers, even to those who have never expressed an interest in college sports. Athletic amateurism has become the low-hanging fruit for policy-makers and bi-partisan political talk: nearly everyone agrees that athletes deserve to profit from their NIL. But that’s only a fraction of the issues that affect college athletes.

Over the course of the SB-206 storyline, two independent investigations have taken place surrounding coach abuse of softball players at the University of Nebraska and Rutgers University, and more ugly information has surfaced regarding former Ohio State team doctor Richard Strauss, who allegedly assaulted over 300 of his student-athlete patients over the tenure of his decades-long career there. Why have only a handful of stories been written about the systemic abuse of college athletes?

I’ll be blunt: revenue garnered by college athletes is taxable income, and that’s why it demands attention. Athletic safety can’t be taxed, so it gets put on the back burner while everyone else debates amateurism. In a way, Richard Burr is correct about cashing in, but it’s not the athletes who are getting payouts. I would argue that politicians, like Burr, who express a desire to “cash in” on college athletes need to care about their humanity just as much, even if that can’t be taxed.

Division III Violations, Division I Consequences

Several Division I schools have recently made headlines for alleged amateurism violations (Kansas and Georgia Tech, to name some), but now, a Division III school is receiving rare media attention for all of the wrong reasons. Last week, the NCAA stripped The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor football team of its 2017 national title and vacated all of its wins from the 2016-17 season for a self-reported amateurism violation. Institutions usually self-report NCAA violations to proactively avoid harsh punishments from the NCAA by admitting to their wrongdoings before the NCAA finds out on its own.

Apparently, UMHB felt that it violated rules blatantly enough to fear punishment from the head office, even amid the current college hoops scandal and legislation being passed that threatens the structure of the NCAA as we know it. And the head office responded quickly and severely, even with all of its current distractions. So what did UMHB do to stand out in the chaos?

Head football coach Pete Fredenburg allegedly let his players borrow his car over the course of 18 months of his tenure. A 2006 Subaru.

If this sounds absurd at face value, it’s even more ridiculous when you look at the Division-III Manual. According to Bylaw “Staff members may provide reasonable local transportation to student-athletes on an occasional basis.” There’s a similar rule in the Division I Manual, which is why I think it will only be a matter of time before a D I school finds itself in trouble with transportation rules.

Personally, I don’t think Fredenburg did anything wrong, given the phrasing of the legislation, but I’m not the one making the rules. “Reasonable” and “occasional” are ambiguous, which, unfortunately, lends power to the NCAA. That gray area will likely come in handy for the head office, as UMHB has appealed the punishment, and for good reason. Unlike the scandals permeating Division I, Coach Fredenburg seemed to have good intentions when he violated the NCAA’s amateurism rules. When asked about letting his players borrow his car, Fredenburg said “I have a passion to help youngsters. [The athlete] desperately needed some help. I felt like I was okay with the interpretation of the rules. I had an old car that was in my driveway and I loaned it to him.”

The sentence worth repeating is “I felt like I was okay with the interpretation with the rules.” Apparently, the NCAA is not, which is why its policy is so vague. At the end of the day, the NCAA owns the interpretation of its rules at the expense of its member schools.

Another point worth noting is that Division III athletes are not allowed to receive athletic scholarships. Per the Division III Manual’s philosophy statement, athletic intuitions “shall not award financial aid to any student on the basis of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance.” These athletes don’t receive any scholarship money to compete. Isn’t it “reasonable” to allow them to borrow a 2006 Subaru?

Still, the NCAA is rarely, if ever, reasonable, even with its true amateurs: Division III athletes are the ones who are playing for the love of the game and who most closely reflect the NCAA’s purported nonprofessional ideal. But amateurism is all but obsolete at the Division I level, and it looks to me like the NCAA is flexing its power as long as it can. This time, it’s targeting its actual amateurs.

SB-206 Wins the Battle, not the War.

If you follow college sports at any level, you are likely aware that California governor Gavin Newsom just signed the Fair Pay to Play Act (SB-206) into law yesterday morning. This means that in 2023, college athletes may be able to profit from their images, likenesses, and skills, depending on the responses of the NCAA and California universities (It’s a hard “maybe” for now. Check out ESPN’s nifty little School House Rock-esque video explaining the potential path of the bill here). 

I think it’s safe to say that everyone deserves to profit from what is rightfully theirs, and many sports fans consider SB-206 a monumental victory in the fight for athletic rights. It’s definitely a win, but it’s probably not as big of a deal as most people think. Here are ten key reasons why:

1.) In spite of the name, the Fair Pay to Play Act isn’t paying athletes. Rather, it’s allowing financially-illiterate eighteen-year-olds the right to be entrepreneurs, which is potentially dangerous because the bill doesn’t provide any monetary regulation or financial education for the young adults it affects. But because it’s a state law, SB-206 is a great way for California to pay off its debt through taxable revenue.

2.) SB-206 won’t grant college athletes employee status and the benefits (e.g. insurance and the right to unionize) that come with it.

3.) The bill won’t fix the fact that there is no definition of athletic abuse in the Division 1 Manual, let alone any rules against coaches and trainers harming the athletes they oversee (Google Larry Nassar, Richard Strauss, or Sylvia Hatchell for examples of what abuse looks like in athletic settings). Athletes will still be just as vulnerable to abuses of power if/when SB-206 goes into effect.

4.) It won’t provide discriminatory protections to minority athletes and coaches. Discrimination is legal, according to the gaps in the Division 1 Manual.

5.) It won’t provide mental health services to athletes, and these initiatives are desperately needed. Poor mental health among college athletes is a silent epidemic, and college athletes are particularly susceptible to anxiety, depression, PTSD, and eating disorders, all of which put them at a higher risk of heart issues and suicide than the general population. The NCAA has yet to address these problems at a meaningful level.

6.) SB-206 won’t improve training room health care for athletes, because the NCAA requires literally nothing of the healthcare specialists that work with its athletes. There’s a whole handbook of guidelines (which hasn’t been updated since 2015), but no hard and fast requirements, which puts athletes at medical risk. 

7.) It won’t close the pay gap between male and female coaches, or the funding gaps between men’s and women’s athletic programs.

8.) The bill won’t lift scholarship caps. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of college athletes don’t have full ride scholarships, because the NCAA limits the amount of monetary resources teams can provide them. For example, Division 1 track teams receive 12.6 full scholarships to be dealt out to rosters that typically hover around 30 athletes. This keeps resources scarce, which keeps things toxically competitive among teammates, and makes college athletes dangerously controllable. If coaches maintain financial control over athletes, they can make athletes do just about anything, and SB-206 won’t leverage that playing field for the majority of college athletes who aren’t worth millions of dollars.

9.) SB-206 won’t give college athletes any job security. Coaches get multi-year contracts, but can legally cut an athlete’s scholarship without warning, and for virtually any reason. 

10.) It won’t give athletes anywhere to go with any of the aforementioned problems. There is no standard operating procedure for reporting athletic grievances, which is why most athletes stay silent when they are mistreated (e.g. the University of Nebraska softball team) and keeps the system in place. 

Allowing college athletes to earn money is a good fight to fight, but it’s certainly not the only one. The NCAA needs a complete structural reform before it actually starts benefitting its athletes, so although the one-sidedness of the amateurism conversation is frustrating, the national attention is encouraging. Maybe SB-206 will serve as a good wrecking ball to start dismantling–and then rebuilding–a crooked, but promising, organization.