What I Paid To Be A Division I Athlete
College sports offer kids an opportunity to live a dream. They also force upon those kids a series of harsh non-choices that, when taken together, are nightmarish.
Photo via Luke Bonner
I didn't know it at the time, but I could have done something. I didn't. But, in hindsight, I could have.
When I was an active college basketball player, it took me a while to figure out that something was off. After all, I was lucky enough to have an athletic scholarship at a prestigious university, I thought. Plus, my older brother Matt and sister Becky also received athletic scholarships at prestigious universities for hoops. A blessing, right?
After all, all universities are prestigious. And that should be enough for any athlete, especially the ones who otherwise wouldn't have a chance in hell at setting foot on campus. We take this as good fortune, and we wield. So, when the NCAA didn't believe that one person could eat as much as my brother did at an Outback Steakhouse during one of his official visits—one of the five expenses-paid visits high school seniors are permitted under NCAA rules—my parents didn't contest the claim. They paid the school back for the meal. Who were we to challenge the system that was about to bless my brother with the privilege of playing basketball on national television in front of sold-out arenas?
And, when an NCAA compliance officer threatened my brother could be suspended for part of the season, my family didn't dare dispute it. We were scared, suddenly panicked about Matt's promising future being ruined by a misunderstanding.
As the valedictorian of his high school class, my brother had the audacity to accept a scholarship from a local community organization, a scholarship dedicated every year to the school's valedictorian. Matt used the money to help pay for summer courses prior to starting the fall semester of his freshman year; that is, he used the scholarship he earned in the way in which it was intended to be used. As it happens, the NCAA has since adjusted their policy on this, and allows this first summer session to be covered by athletic scholarships; it is now commonplace for recruits to start courses a few days after their high school graduation. This was not yet the rule, though, and so according to compliance my brother benefitted from his status as a college basketball player. This is totally unacceptable for anyone to do, except for the NCAA and its sponsors.
Disputing the claim didn't even enter our minds. My parents feared Matt could be vilified if it wasn't taken care of immediately. We imagined a press conference at which he would have to publicly apologize to his teammates, the coaches, the university, and the fans for letting them down. Who knows how the whole affair could have affected his draft stock? So, my dad picked up extra refereeing gigs in addition to his day job as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service; my mom, an elementary school teacher, signed up to teach summer school. They paid it back, and kept all frustrations about the absurdity of the situation within the family.
The absurdity of it was plain to us all even then, but there wasn't much to do about it. Anyway, again: we were all privileged to be in such a situation. And it's not a smart move to cross the NCAA, especially when you have two younger children gearing up to enter into that same system.
It's safe to say that my skepticism of the NCAA started long before I signed a National Letter of Intent to play Big East basketball. But, like pretty much every other college player, I swore I'd make it to the NBA. I was a skilled seven-footer who stayed out of trouble. If I could secure enough playing time to average close to 10 points and more than 5 rebounds per game, I figured I'd at least get a look. Surely, I'd have a shot at being the 15th man on the worst team in the NBA. Or at least help a top-level team overseas. That would still be a damn good payday, and money I'd earn by playing basketball instead of grinding it out in a cubicle or factory.
If any of this were to happen, though, I knew what I'd have to do, or more specifically not do. I couldn't risk challenging the status quo and inviting the label of being a troublemaker. A little rationalization smoothed this out nicely: I mean, I signed up for this at my own free will. Squint enough, dream hard enough, and it suddenly seemed only right that my parents' insurance covered the root canal and crown I needed after getting my front tooth knocked out during a war rebounding drill in practice.
Likewise it wasn't the school's fault that the seven-foot, 270-pound ogre on the other team dove into my legs during a nationally televised game my senior year. So, why should the school be required to pay for my MRIs when my parents had insurance and still claimed me as a dependent? Sure, I always assumed the school was required to cover all medical expenses for athletic-related injuries, but I guess it was my own fault for never asking about that during the recruiting process. And yeah, being out of network with an HMO family insurance policy made things tricky and expensive at times—the coaching staff decides which doctors you see, and these happened to be out of network for me—but at least my parents had insurance in the first place, unlike some of my teammates.
And if I spoke out, how would it reflect on coach? Surely people would spin it into something about my coach's treatment of his players, even though it was not that simple. When the NBA goes through a collective bargaining process, player demands never reflect upon the coaches. They stick to the basic economic realities of the situation. I was coming to know a very different set of economic realities, and very well. Certainly, I knew them well enough to know not to talk about them.
If I did, coach could well bury me at the end of the bench for being selfish. If he did, could I really blame him? After all, I'd be responsible for bringing all of this negative attention to our program. This distraction could topple the delicate habitat of our locker room and affect our team's performance on the court.
And, if we didn't perform, coach might never have been able to leave after my junior year to accept that nearly $3 million-per-year contract to coach at a different university. Oh, and he secured access to a private jet, a nearly $10 million buyout on his new contract, the whole nine. Good for him. He earned it. I probably would have done the same if I were in his position.
Anyway, I'm glad he's doing well, and it was exciting to spend my last year of college eligibility getting to know a new coaching staff.
And what were we earning for all of our hard work? My teammates and I were putting in 40-plus hours a week towards basketball-related activities on top of our academic schedules. But, that's what was needed to be able to do our jobs on the court; it helped teach us time management skills.
And, waking up at 5:00 a.m. to run sprints until total exhaustion and/or vomiting was teaching me a valuable lesson about the real world. Like our coaches said, we didn't have it that bad. They were always helping us keep perspective, reminding us that we could have been digging a ditch somewhere or dodging bullets in Iraq. So in the scheme of things, between the sprints, weight lifting, individual instruction, practice, film sessions, treatment, study hall and class, we had it made. Sure, it all drove me to hate the game I loved my whole life. Sure, laying in bed at night feeling unrelenting aches and pain, I fantasized about quitting the team or at least sleeping through the next day's beating. But, that was never an option. Couldn't risk anyone thinking I was soft.
Anyway, what could I have done about it? I was just a role player on a mediocre college team; my scholarship was contingent on me doing my job on the basketball court. Which also meant working through holidays, submitting to regular drug testing, sacrificing the right to my own name/image/likeness, participating in mandatory marketing initiatives. I could rationalize this, too: subjecting myself to restrictions on self expression came with the territory, and if some of these rules were draconian and weird—restrictions on what you're allowed to post on social media, not being allowed to grow your hair past your eyes unless you make the dean's list, a prohibition of wearing du-rags in public—then I could live with them. I didn't wear du-rags anyway.
And what about the rest of the university administration and alumni network? Would it really have been worth burning those bridges by being so unappreciative for all they have done for me, and all they could do to take care of me when my playing days were long done? Sure, it sucked when my car got towed from the gym all those times our 6 a.m. practices ran longer than expected, and it sucked that the bus didn't run that early in the morning, and there were no permits available to students for the lot by the gym. But I got it. If I was allowed to park there just because I played basketball, that would have been an impermissible extra benefit, and presumably a gateway to a whole mess of things. It was tough to scrape up the money to get my car out of the pound, but on the other hand I didn't have to pay for books.
And it could always be worse. I know guys in much higher profile programs than mine used food stamps during winter break when the dining halls shut down. I wasn't subjected to anything like that at either of my schools.
I'm just lucky that NCAA rules required me to redshirt during my transfer year. Without that rule, I never would have been able to finish off a master's degree at one of the top Sport Management programs in the country; I also never would have been exposed to courses on college athletics and sports labor law. I probably never would have taken a deeper dive into the system in the first place.
I learned a lot, but even then I still reasoned that there was nothing I could do about it. I was just a college kid, and even if what college athletes—disorganized, pampered, selfish—would be asking for was pretty basic, we'd be taking on the NCAA and its lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and PR team. No chance. The NCAA rakes in billions every year off its Cinderella stories. Ours could be the greatest of all time, but I knew enough to know that Cinderella stories were more of an on-the-court thing.
It's none of my business, now. I could pen the most persuasive essay in the history of the written word, or represent college athletes at Congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. where political advisors are brought to tears. It won't change a goddamn thing, because my time has passed.
Yes, the NCAA has reluctantly made some improvements recently, almost all of them the result of a series of lawsuits and as a reaction to the Northwestern football team stepping up in an attempt to unionize. In general, throughout the association's history, intense legal pressure has proven the only legitimate way to get the NCAA to move an inch. That's why the actions of the Northwestern football players were so impressive, they found the courage to take a stand for college athletes everywhere.
So I'm older, and it's not my business, only I'll say this anyway: it's about time college athletes understood how much power they actually have. I'm not one of you, not anymore, but I encourage you to stand up for yourselves. You are the key individuals driving this multibillion-dollar industry, its labor and its product. You deserve a say, a real say, in the policies that stand to affect your lives the most. You deserve to have your best interests represented. You deserve rights, legal standing and representation, just like athletes in every other major sports league in our country. Just like every other citizen in our country, come to think of it.
Change can happen the moment you decide that change must happen. So, do something while you still can.
Why wouldn't you?
Oh, yeah. Probably for the same reasons I never did.