California Proposes Scholarship Extensions for Student-Athletes

Last Updated on June 5, 2014

Guest author: Mit Winter

A groundbreaking bill known as the Student Athlete Bill of Rights is close to becoming law in California.  The California Senate and Assembly both recently passed the bill and it currently awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.  Brown has not publicly given any indication as to whether he intends to sign it into law.

If Brown does sign the bill, beginning with the 2013-14 school year student athletes at California universities that receive at least $10 million annually from the sale of athletics-based media rights will be entitled to a number of benefits.  The most prominent are as follows:

1) If a student athlete’s athletic scholarship is not renewed due to an incapacitating injury or illness resulting from participation in an intercollegiate sport, the university must provide the student athlete with an equivalent scholarship that, when combined with the athletic scholarship, provides for up to five academic years or until the student athlete graduates, whichever comes first.

2) Scholarship student athletes who are members of teams with a graduation success rate of less than 60%, and have exhausted their athletic eligibility before graduating, must be provided with an equivalent scholarship for up to one year or until the student athlete graduates, whichever is shorter.

One thing to note up front before diving into an analysis of these two provisions (which I call the injury scholarship continuation and graduation scholarship continuation rules):  because the law will only apply to California universities receiving at least $10 million annually from the sale of athletics-based media rights, it will initially only affect USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal.  San Diego State may become a member of the $10 million club soon, but that will depend on how well Mike Aresco can sell the new version of Big East football.  No other California universities are currently likely to be affected by the law, but, as we have seen with the realignment frenzy over the past few years, anything can happen.

Now that we know which schools will be affected by the injury scholarship continuation and graduation scholarship continuation rules let’s take a closer look at them.  At first glance, each of the rules makes sense.  Student-athletes at USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Cal play a big part in those schools receiving large media rights checks.  So, it seems fair that student-athletes should continue to receive scholarships after they are injured participating in a sport or if they have not yet graduated when their athletic eligibility is exhausted.

But, when the reach of each rule is considered, much of the revenue generation argument disappears.  Why?  Because the law does not apply only to student-athletes participating in revenue generating sports:  generally football and men’s basketball, with some limited exceptions.

The scholarship continuation rule applies to any student-athlete who received an athletic scholarship.  Using Stanford as an example, this means that scholarship athletes such as men’s and women’s fencers, men’s and women’s gymnasts, men’s wrestlers, and women’s rowers will maintain their athletic scholarships if they are injured while participating in their sport and can no longer compete.[1]  Not that there is anything wrong with this.  But, if the argument is that scholarship student-athletes should continue to receive scholarships after an incapacitating injury because of all the money they generated for their school while competing, the law shouldn’t reach this far.  Fencers, gymnasts, wrestlers, and rowers are not producing revenue for Stanford.

If all of Stanford’s scholarship student athletes are entitled to a scholarship continuation after an injury, why shouldn’t a scholarship football or basketball player at Fresno State be entitled to that benefit as well?  Those student athletes are generating some revenue for Fresno State.  Again, there is nothing wrong with providing all scholarship student athletes with scholarship continuations after injuries.  But those who are generating revenue, regardless of school, should have the same rights to a scholarship continuation after an injury.

While Stanford will be affected by the injury continuation rule, it won’t have to worry about the graduation continuation rule.  This part of the law only applies to teams that have a graduation success rate below 60%.  The most recent available Graduation Success Rate (GSR) data (2010-11 academic year) shows that all of Stanford’s teams had GSRs well above 60%.

The same cannot be said for Cal, UCLA, and USC. Cal’s men’s basketball team had a GSR of 33% while its football team had a GSR of 54%.  USC’s men’s basketball team had a GSR of 38%.  UCLA’s football team had a GSR of 59%.  So, if they have not already graduated, scholarship members of these teams will be entitled to a continuation of their scholarships for up to one year after their athletic eligibility has expired.  Again, the rule makes sense.  Especially when the student athletes receiving the scholarships are members of revenue generating teams.

What doesn’t make sense is the limitation of the rule to members of teams that have a GSR below 60%.  The intent of the limit appears to be to increase graduation levels for football and men’s basketball, as those two sports generally have lower graduation rates than other sports at most schools.  This is a worthy goal.  But, why should a member of the USC football team not be entitled to a continuation of his scholarship after his athletic eligibility expires when a basketball player is?

The football player likely brings more value to USC than a basketball player.  But, despite the football player’s role in generating a substantial amount of revenue for USC, the football player is not entitled to a scholarship continuation because the program has done a better job of graduating players than the basketball program.  This doesn’t seem fair.  If the goal is to reward members of these teams for their part in generating revenue, then the continuation rule should cover those teams generating a certain amount of revenue, regardless of GSR rates.

To link the injury scholarship and graduation scholarship continuation rules more closely to revenue generation, they could be changed to be team specific as opposed to school specific.  One potential fix would apply the two rules to any team at a California school that generates revenue of at least $2 million.  The actual number isn’t important for this entry.  And there would have to be some discussion about how to calculate how much revenue a specific team generates.  But, amending the bill in this way would reward all of the California student athletes who are generating revenue for their schools.

[1] Question: What types of injuries do fencers get?  Triceps strains from all of the thrusting?  Groin pulls from the quick lunges at your opponent?

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