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.   

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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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