According to an old political saw, you can always count on America to do the right thing, but only after it has tried everything else. The same holds true of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, albeit with one difference: Replace "tried everything else" with "had a legal gun pressed to its head."
Case in point? Four-year athletic scholarships.
Earlier this week, the University of Southern California announced that it will offer four-year athletic scholarships to football and basketball players, as opposed to the one-year renewable deals that are the de facto NCAA standard -- the same deals that lead to situations like former Rice University football player Joseph Agnew being cut from the school's team and losing about $35,000 in academic funding prior to his senior year because a new coach gave his scholarship to an incoming recruit. Meanwhile, Pac-12 and Big Ten conference school presidents are publicly supporting greater benefits for college athletes, including cost-of-living stipends, better medical coverage and -- you guessed it -- four-year guaranteed athletic scholarships.
Why the sudden magnanimity? School officials would have you believe that it's simply the right thing to do -- or, as USC athletic director Pat Haden put it in a press release, an effort to "refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field."
Hogwash. Don't be fooled. The only reason campus power brokers are falling over themselves to cut athletes a slightly bigger slice of a multibillion-dollar pie lies in an Oakland, Calif. courtroom. The ongoing antitrust trial pitting former University of California, Los Angeles basketball star Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA threatens to upend the entire amateurism-based business model of major college sports -- the model in which schools enjoy absolute economic control while purporting to protect athletes from commercialization. Former NCAA president Walter Byers, the system's chief architect, summed it up as follows:
…the college player cannot sell his own feet (the coach does that) nor can he sell his own name (the college will do that). This is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today's campus executives…
Campus executives are not primarily concerned with "athlete welfare." They are primarily concerned with power, money and keeping a good thing (for them) going. In O'Bannon's case -- along with a bid by Northwestern University football players to unionize and other pending antitrust suits against the NCAA and the major conferences -- athletes are demanding an end to amateurism and the freedom to negotiate for a larger chunk of the revenue their sweat and dedication largely creates. The schools would rather hold the line. If four-year scholarships and other cookie crumbs can act as a sop -- a way to convince federal judges, nosy lawmakers and the public at large that athletes get plenty and don't deserve to ask for more -- then so be it. Better to give a little than to lose everything.
Unconvinced? A history lesson is in order. Once upon a time, athletic scholarships of any type were barred by the NCAA. (Because amateurism!) The result was a thriving underground economy: College athletes with valuable skills were paid accordingly via cash, loans, make-work jobs and "need-based" aid that had little to do with financial circumstances and much to do with how fast an athlete could run and how high they could jump. In response, in 1956, the NCAA adopted athletic scholarships covering room, board, tuition, books, fees and $15 a month for laundry. Athletes could now be paid by their schools, but only in a standardized manner. Oh, and the scholarships were guaranteed for four years regardless of injury or athletes quitting -- not because of any inherent generosity, but because NCAA attorneys were worried that if scholarships were viewed as pay-for-play instead of educational gifts, member schools might be exposed to worker's compensation claims.
Enter the late 1960s. NCAA members were increasingly frustrated. Downright upset. Some athletes were quitting sports, yet continuing their studies on their schools' dimes. The nerve. One college athletic director wrote a letter to Byers arguing that this was "morally wrong" and that "regardless of what anyone says, this is a contract and it is a two-way street." In 1973, NCAA schools voted to eliminate four-year scholarships outright. Even schools that wanted to guarantee four years of education would no longer be allowed to do so.
According to Byers, the vote took 90 seconds.
For the next three decades, athletic scholarships were performance-based contracts, reviewable and renewable on a year-to-year basis. Not coincidentally, the change strengthened the hand of coaches and school administrators. "You know why they do one-year renewable scholarships?" former NFL and Syracuse University player and union advocate Dave Meggyesy once told me. "Because back in the early 1970s, the sh** was hitting the fan. There were a number of athlete protests, including Syracuse, Oregon and Washington -- black athlete protests following [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos raising their fists at the  Olympics. One of the responses for the NCAA was to change the four-year grant-in-aid to a one-year renewable, to give the coaches a hammer over any scholarship ballplayer who would think about acting out. It was just a measure of control."
Even if their grades were in order, athletes such as Agnew could be cut for any reason. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Agnew himself filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in 2010, alleging that the association's 1973 multiyear-scholarship ban violated antirust law by denying him the opportunity to bargain among the schools that had recruited him for the best possible deal. His case was dismissed on a legal technicality.
Still, another shift was underway. A few months before Agnew filed suit, attorneys from the Department of Justice's antitrust division met with the NCAA. As Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch has reported, they had a simple question:
What possible educational rationale was there for allowing the NCAA -- an organization that did not itself pay for scholarships -- to impose a blanket restriction on the length of scholarships offered by colleges?
By August of 2011, the NCAA's Division I board of directors again reversed course, moving to permit multiyear scholarships. Pushback among the association's purportedly pro-education member schools was fierce: Just five months later, 62.12 percent of the NCAA's 330 Division I institutions voted to kill the new rule, falling just short of a required 62.5 percent override threshold.
Grudging resentment continues to reign. According to a report last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education, many college athletic administrators are less than thrilled with the change. Some schools refuse to give multiyear scholarships. Others hand them sparingly.
Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky -- ironically one of the NCAA's star witnesses in the O'Bannon trial, who kept a straight face while telling federal judge Claudia Wilken that "academics is where the conversation begins" and "education is life-long, and sports are four years" -- even told The Chronicle that she was opposed to four years of guaranteed, no-cost education because the "last thing young people need right now is more entitlement." In a subsequent investigation, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discovered that colleges aren't just loath to hand out multiyear deals; they're reluctant to even tell high school recruits that said deals are an option.
But sure, now just happens to be the perfect time to "refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field." Who is this Ed O'Bannon you speak of? I'm just a caveman!
Time and again, the NCAA and its member schools do the right thing only when forced -- never, ever before. In 1991, the association attempted to cap pay for assistant basketball coaches at $16,000, a blatant violation of the Sherman Act. (Suppose you're an auto mechanic. How would you like every garage in the country agreeing to pay you no more than $16,000?) The rule was lifted under court order. Six years ago, the NCAA established a $10 million fund to help athletes cover the full cost of attending school, a cost that often is higher than the value of athletic scholarships. The association didn't decide to help out of the goodness of its collective heart -- it did so to settle a class-action antitrust lawsuit brought by former athletes that could have driven a stake through amateurism while forcing the NCAA to pay $351 million in damages.
To put things another way: USC has been free to offer four-year scholarships since 2012. The Pac-12 and Big Ten presidents could have stomped their feet for increased athlete benefits at any point in the last decade. Better yet, they could have opened up their school's checkbooks. After all, they're in charge. So why now? The tells are buried in the presidents' letters, amid the heady calls to prepare students for life and reassert the academic primacy of our mission.
Labor unions are not the answer, according to the Pac-12 presidents.
The amateur model is not broken, according to the Big Ten presidents.
According to a really old political saw, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. The ancient Greek historian and philosopher Thucydides wrote that, and while he wasn't referring to athlete welfare, his observation fits. To keep what they can of amateurism, schools are giving what they must. Same as ever.