Monday, April 19, 2010

In Recruiting, It’s Buyer Beware—for the Athletes, That Is

By Libby Sander, Chronicle of Higher Education

As recruiting pitches go, this one was pure Southern charm: The famous college football coach, debonair in his Armani suit, settles into a posh Memphis living room and, just before launching into the soft sell, delivers a well-timed compliment.

"What a lovely home," says Nick Saban in The Blind Side, the book-turned-movie account of a family's foray into college football. "I just love those window treatments."

When it comes to wooing athletes, there's nothing like a strategic dose of flattery to butter up Mom and Dad. But even though college coaches may be reluctant to bring up serious matters like injuries and revoked scholarships during a recruiting pitch, lawmakers in at least two states, concerned about promises made and later broken, now want them to do just that. Those efforts are part of a broader attempt to provide college athletes with greater recourse when it comes to the financial and medical pitfalls they sometimes encounter.

Bills introduced in the California and Georgia legislatures would require coaches recruiting athletes in those states to disclose, among other things, institutional and NCAA policies on medical expenses, scholarship renewals, and transfers for athletes. Tom Torlakson, the state lawmaker who co-authored the California measure, which was introduced in February, says it would help athletes and their families better understand the implications of accepting an athletics scholarship—and would hold universities accountable for the promises their coaches make.

"It helps to have it in writing," says Mr. Torlakson, a Democrat. "It solidifies the university's commitment to the athlete."

The Georgia bill, introduced in March, is far more expansive than its California counterpart. But both would require coaches who recruit athletes in those two states—considered hotbeds of athletics talent—to disclose, for example:

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The cost of attendance, as well as the expenses not covered by a full athletics scholarship.
The institution’s policy on renewal or nonrenewal of an athletics scholarship, particularly in cases of injury or a coaching change.
Whether the athletics program will pay for medical expenses that exceed maximum insurance coverage limits.
The National College Players Association, an advocacy group of 14,000 current and former Division I athletes, sponsored the California measure. Ramogi Huma, the group's president, has been working for years to bring more openness to a freewheeling recruiting process that he says keeps prospective athletes and their families in the dark.

Athletes generate millions of dollars for their universities, he says, but they are often denied basic protections. In particular, he faults scholarship shortfalls, outstanding medical bills, and the false guarantee of four-year scholarships that he says some coaches give to athletes and their families during the recruiting stage. (NCAA rules permit only one-year, renewable scholarships.)

"There are some serious problems in how the schools and the NCAA treat their athletes, and it’s not public," says Mr. Huma, who played football at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Our message to parents and recruits is, 'Buyer beware. Be careful in the school you choose.'"

Reading the Fine Print
"Know the rules … before you sign!"

So reads the slogan for the National Collegiate Athletic Association's's National Letter of Intent program, which oversees the process by which athletes agree, during their senior year of high school, to a binding, one-year, renewable scholarship.

The NCAA and the National Letter of Intent program both publish pamphlets and other materials meant to educate prospective athletes and their families on the recruiting process. And the association's mammoth rule book is hardly lacking for recruiting rules designed to guide coaches: Hundreds of regulations governing telephone calls, meetings, and even the kinds of snacks recruits may have on their campus visits have created a vast bureaucracy.

But for all the rules, it's difficult to find anyone in college sports who thinks the recruiting process functions as it should. Over the next year, the NCAA's Division I recruiting cabinet, a group of high-level athletics administrators, will look for ways to streamline and improve the process. Scrutiny of the early recruitment of athletes and a simplification of the rules governing coaches' communication with athletes are among the many agenda items.

Pam DeCosta, head women's basketball coach at San Jose State University, says she is surprised by Mr. Huma’s dissatisfaction with coaches. In her nearly 20 years of coaching, most of it in Division I, she says, she has always taken a "just be honest" approach to discussing scholarships and medical expenses with athletes and their families, and so have most of her colleagues.

"That's just my philosophy," she says. "I'm just going to put it out there: 'You come, you come. You don't, you don't. I didn't lie to you.'"

Still, Mr. Huma says few athletes and their families truly know how to navigate the recruiting process, and even fewer understand the fine print that spells out the terms of a scholarship. But they sign on the dotted line anyway.

And after that, "you're pretty much stuck with whatever policies that school has," he says.

Mr. Huma, whose office is in Riverside, Calif., has been an advocate for current and former scholarship athletes for nearly a decade. In his quest to establish better safeguards for scholarship athletes, he has sought advice from a key labor union, the United Steelworkers, and has filed public-records requests with all Division I universities to acquire their medical policies for athletes.

In 2008, Mr. Huma was involved in a major legal settlement between the NCAA and four former football and basketball players who had sued the association over its caps on scholarship aid.

Under the settlement, the NCAA agreed to set aside $218-million to help more than 150,000 Division I athletes in all sports pay for basic expenses not covered by their scholarships.

The athletes' momentum continues: Ed O'Bannon, a former basketball standout at UCLA, filed a class-action lawsuit last year against the NCAA that claims the association should compensate former athletes for its use of their images and likenesses in video games and other profitable commercial ventures. Last month 11 more athletes, whose playing days date back to the 1960s, joined the lawsuit.

To be sure, says Mr. Huma, who earned a master's degree in public health from UCLA after graduating in 1999, anyone making an important decision like where to go to college has a responsibility to be informed. But doing the research can be difficult.

"All people have to go on is verbal promises from coaches that are easily broken," he says. "You can't make a responsible decision when all you have access to are coaches."

The NCAA has maintained that colleges—and coaches—have been forthcoming, and that the information Mr. Huma seeks is readily available. The association is in the beginning stages of analyzing the California and Georgia legislation, and has yet to take an official position on either bill.

"These things are already in writing, categorically, for student-athletes," says Chris Plonsky, director of women's athletics at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's amazing to me that people think they aren't."

The problem is that colleges may not provide the information in a way that athletes can understand, says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Ithaca College who has worked with the players' association. Provisions relating to the nuances of medical coverage, such as the conditions under which a scholarship may be withdrawn, are particular trouble spots, she says. And while some colleges offer clear statements about their policies, for others, the letters of intent may not be enough.

"I don't think you can do enough to make sure that they fully appreciate what kind of deal they are signing," Ms. Staurowsky says of the athletes. "Even if there is some information in that letter, frankly, it may not register with the student the way that it should."

Unexpected Expenses
One of the biggest challenges athletes face is the gap between the value of their scholarship and the total cost of attendance, Mr. Huma says. Tuition continues to increase every year at most universities, and athletics scholarships often fail to keep up. Not all athletes are aware of the shortfalls, he says, especially those who are promised "full" scholarships.

Last year the players' association found that athletes on full athletics scholarships shoulder anywhere from $200 to more than $6,000 in additional out-of-pocket expenses per year.

The average amount was $2,763 per year.

Another unexpected twist can come when athletes sustain serious injuries and rack up medical bills that exceed the limits of insurance policies.

While some athletes are covered by their parents' health-insurance policies, such plans often do not provide coverage for varsity-sports injuries or have restrictions on out-of-state treatment. Many athletics programs purchase secondary insurance policies to cover athletes where their parents' policies leave off. But it's not a fail-safe arrangement, and some athletes who sustain serious injuries grapple with medical bills for years afterward. The NCAA's catastrophic insurance, in the meantime, applies in only the most dire of cases—and even then, the deductible is $75,000.

It's just the kind of uncomfortable, but crucial, point that Mr. Huma says he would like to see coaches discuss more candidly. "Sports-related injuries should not be left on the student-athlete, period," he says. "But at the very least, schools need to be upfront with parents during the recruiting process."

It's unclear at this early stage whether new state laws would provide Mr. Huma with the candor he seeks. After all, the recruiting road is defined by both sides' eagerness to showcase only their very best qualities. As Coach Saban knows, it's awkward to talk about the hard realities of college sports during the courtship phase. Better to focus on the curtains.

Josh Keller contributed reporting to this article.

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