With college teams lined up in brackets, March Madness reminds me of greyhound racing. It's not the obvious similarities -- all the wagering over both competitions or all the sleek strength on display.
No, it's that just like broken down greyhounds, injured college players often are tossed aside. Of course, a college can't euthanize a ball player whose injury renders him unable to resume play or whose grades disqualify him -- at least not the way a race track can put down an injured dog.
What universities can do is kill players' dreams. And they do.
Over the past year, 169 players have "disappeared" from the rosters of the teams in the men's basketball tournament. The National College Players Association, which is supported by the United Steelworkers, compared the 2007-08 rosters to the current ones and noted the missing players.
Universities advertise themselves all over TV, particularly during college basketball and football games, as places where dreams are made. A National Collegiate Athletic Association policy, however, destroys dreams for many young athletes. It forbids schools to dole out more than one-year scholarships to athletes. This means they disappear from sports rosters and enrollment rolls at the same time.
It's unfair and unnecessary. A bum knee may keep a kid from playing ball but certainly shouldn't prevent him from becoming a sportscaster or a civil engineer.
In addition, a second National College Players Association study found that players also suffer because the NCAA prohibits universities from providing athletic scholarships that equal the cost of attendance. That means athletes, often from impoverished backgrounds, are expected to pay out-of-pocket for expenses not covered by what was described to them and their families as "full" scholarships. The study found the average cost to the athletes is $2,763 a year, but it's as high as $6,000.
The NCAA needs to spend more on scholarships from the $545 million it receives each year from CBS Sports for the right to televise the men's basketball tournament. The NCAA must end the prohibition on full scholarships, and the scholarships must be awarded for five years, an athlete's typical length of stay. If an athlete drops out, or fails out, that's one thing, but he should never lose his ability to attend school because a coach doesn't like him or because he's injured.
The National College Players Association study that concluded 169 players "disappeared" from the rosters of men's teams now in the basketball tournament excluded those young men who graduated or got drafted into the National Basketball Association.
Athletes disappear for less positive reasons than finishing school or getting big pro contracts. They no longer qualify to play because grueling athletic schedules and inadequate academic support lead to poor scholastic records. They're injured, can't play, and their coaches revoke their scholarships. Coaches take a dislike to them, find promising high school players to replace them and cancel their scholarships.
The loss of the scholarship means not only that there's no chance of going pro but also, for many students, there's no chance of finishing college. All dreams are dead.
It's galling. Until that point, the college used their likeness, their name, their accomplishments to sell tickets and t-shirts. The college coaches raked in million-dollar salaries and the universities and conferences pulled down tens of millions from the television deals and corporate sponsors. But the student is left with nothing.
Even athletes who are lucky enough to remain on the roster until graduation, retaining their year-to-year scholarships as they go, may end their college careers thousands of dollars in debt. The National College Players Association and Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Ithaca College in New York, calculated the scholarship shortfall costs at Division I universities.
For the average athlete, who attends five years, the shortfall ads up to $13,800. But what students must pay at some schools is much higher. The steepest is at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. There it's $6,000 a year, for a total of $30,000 over five years.
University of Oklahoma player Courtney Paris snared huge publicity this March Madness season when she swore she'd return her scholarship money -- estimated to be worth as much as $100,000 -- if the Sooners didn't win the national basketball championship.
That's easier for her to say than most players, however. For one thing, it's expected she'll go pro, a prize only one percent of all college athletes attain.
In addition, her father, Bubba Paris, a former tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and owner of three Super Bowl rings, might be able to help her pay tuition with less difficulty than the average college athlete's dad.
The National College Players Association is not asking for pay for play. Its demand is much more basic, and fair: five-year complete scholarships for student athletes. No more deceptive one-year partial deals.
For greyhounds, there's a rescue and adoption society to give those who are spared a good life after the trials of the track. Student athletes aren't asking to be "kept." They just want a fair chance to compete in the classroom.