The Southeastern Conference announced in August 2008 a 15 year, $2.25 billion contract with ESPN for the broadcast rights to all SEC sports. The size of this contract is unprecedented in college sports and represents an amazing financial windfall for the Conference. In the past year, the SEC distributed $127MM to its 12 member schools, representing their share of television and bowl appearances, so one can assume that the annual distributions will increase because of this new television rights package. Each school uses these proceeds to augment their athletic department budgets- whether it is funding Title IX sports, covering operating shortfalls, or constructing or revamping facilities. While the SEC television contract is the largest in college sports, other major schools reap the rewards of television coverage and bowl appearances.
Football stadiums across America will be filled on Saturdays as fans cheer on their respective schools, and these schools will amass the financial rewards of those filled stadiums. But what of the athletes that play for those schools? How will they fare, not on the field, but in the classroom? Through a concerted effort by the NCAA and its member schools, graduation rates have improved, but are still surprisingly low. The latest graduation rates for football players at Football Championship Schools (FCS), those that are eligible to play for the mythical national championship, range from a high of 94% at Northwestern University to a low of 41% at Georgia, according to Rivals.com. Most NCAA schools will have an average graduation rate of their football players of 60%- those players that enroll as freshmen and complete their degree within five years. It is obvious that most major colleges can and should improve on this average graduation rate. The question is how to do so. Currently, NCAA schools can lose scholarships if the graduation rate falls below a certain level, so there is an incentive for the school to keep players eligible by any means to avoid the disincentive of losing scholarships, at least until an athlete has used up his eligibilty. Is there another way that will improve the graduation rates of college athletes, specifically football players, and have them emerge from their college years with a degree?
I think there is, and I would propose incentivizing athletes to complete their degrees. How? Here is my proposal. When a student athlete enrolls in college, an account is created for that athlete and upon successful completion of the academic requirements of that school year, a deposit is made into that account of $10,000. Upon completion of another school year and meeting the academic requirements required to advance toward a degree, another $10,000 is deposited. This would continue until the athlete completes his eligibility AND his degree. These funds would not be accessible by the athlete until graduation. Upon successfully completing their degree requirements, these funds would then be distributed to the graduating athlete. An athlete that fails to complete their degree requirements or chooses to leave school early would forfeit these funds and they would be returned to the school.
FCS schools have a football scholarship limit of 85 students, so theoretically, a school would be on the hook for $8,500,000 yearly to fund this program. It could be argued that this would be finacially burdensome for some schools. Let's take a hypothetical example to see if it would be. Suppose you have a school that has a football stadium that seats 60,000 (the majority of FCS schools have stadiums that are far larger) and they charge $25 per ticket for a game. Each home game grosses $1,500,000 in ticket sales. Six home games gives an annual gross of $9,000,000. Say that all 85 athletes qualify for the program that I have proposed and the school is obligated to fund the scholarship accounts to the tune of $8,500,000. The school would net $500,000.
The immediate agrument to this scenario is that most football programs are the economic engines for the remainder of their athletic programs, and that if these monies are diverted to a program of this type, other sports will suffer. That most football programs are the economic engines of the athletic department is true, but there are other revenue streams that a major college program generates. Seat license revenue, concessions, merchandise sales are some of the revenue streams that these programs spawn. And don't forget those massive television revenues that are being paid. There are numerous sources of revenue that a school could use to fund this program. Most schools manage their athletic department budgets well and manage to run a surplus.
Imagine an athlete with a monetary incentive to go to class, and the effect of knowing that when you graduate, there will be funds available to continue education or use to get started in life. This will have a powerful and positive effect on graduation rates, and ties the athlete more closely to the educational process. One can argue that the scholarship an athlete receives and the educational opportunity that he has should be incentive enough. The graduation rates of college football players argues otherwise.
One can play with the number that I propose to deposit for the student athlete. Even cutting it in half can, I believe, still provide a powerful incentive to complete the degree requirements. And graduating more student athletes with degrees will be a good thing.