The Truth about Sports Scholarships

Last Updated Jun 2, 2009 5:52 PM EDT

Secret 1: Forget About Becoming a Doctor

Is your teenager hoping to major in premed? If he or she is playing Division I sports, they might not get the chance. Athletes are so consumed by their sport that they can’t always major in the sciences or in other time-intensive fields. One survey indicated that one out of five athletes don’t major in their first academic choice. A recent USA Today investigation at 142 institutions with top sports programs revealed that many of the athletes participating in football, baseball, softball, and basketball programs were clustered into certain majors. Example: 82 percent of the juniors and seniors on Georgia Tech’s football team shared the same major — management.

Caution: Some schools push students to select majors that aren’t as intensive, such as sociology and interdisciplinary studies. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, some athletes major in “university studies.”

Works best: Consider a Division III school, where there is less emphasis on sports. Another option: Division II schools, which are prohibited from devoting as much time to training as the top-tier schools.

Secret No. 2: Your Scholarship Could Disappear

If a coach guarantees that an athletic scholarship will last through a student’s senior year, he’s lying. NCAA rules stipulate that schools may award only one-year scholarships. It’s up to the coach to decide whose scholarships get renewed.

Caution: With pressure to keep their scholarships, some students neglect their studies, warns David Ridpath, a former assistant athletic director at a Division I university and an assistant professor of sport administration at Ohio University. “With that hanging over their heads they are putting more effort into athletic endeavors, knowing the scholarship could be taken away.”

Works best: If your child loses a sport scholarship it’s possible to appeal the loss of the award. Ask the school about this process.

Secret No. 3: Your Competition Is Overseas

Big-time college athletics in this country have turned global. A growing number of Division I teams are stocking up on foreign players. While the practice is controversial, American coaches argue that there aren’t enough elite players to choose from in this country. The Internet has helped make long-distance recruiting easier.

Caution: Some sports, such as soccer, tennis, and golf, are magnets for foreign players. Roughly half of the top 125 men singles tennis players in Division I are from countries overseas.

Works best: Some schools are committed to fielding teams composed of Americans. Your teenager might have a better shot at those. It’s easy to find the composition of any team by looking at its roster. Coaches typically post their team rosters, which include the state or countries of their players, on their team pages.

Secret No. 4: We’re Going to Work You Like a Dog

D-I coaches will sit in a prospect’s living room and insist that academics comes first, but don’t believe it. “This is what I think is the biggest lie,” says John R. Gerdy, a former All-American basketball player and the author of Air Ball: American Education’s Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics. “Sports don’t take a backseat to anything.”

Caution: Officially, D-I teams aren’t supposed to practice more than 20 hours a week though travel and other extra obligations aren’t included. In reality, the time restriction is often a joke. Conditioning or weight lifting, for instance, might be called voluntary, but the coach takes attendance and the kid who spends that time in the library could end up on the bench. A 2008 NCAA survey of 21,000 athletes concluded that many are overdosing on their sport. Football players, for instance, were devoting 44.8 hours a week to the gridiron, and women softball players were clocking 37.1 hours a week.

Works best: To discover how a coach runs his fiefdom, prospective students should talk to current players. Parents should attend at least one game and ask the moms and dads of current team members for the real scoop.

Secret No. 5: We Don’t Have as Much Money as You Think

The NCAA dictates how many scholarships a school can offer in each sport. For instance, a Division I school can only offer the equivalent of 10 full soccer scholarships. Chances are the coach won’t hand out 10 scholarships, but will slice and dice the pot of cash to field the best team possible.

Caution: Not all schools provide coaches with enough money to fully fund the NCAA’s maximum number of scholarships. Villanova University, for instance, provides the women’s field hockey team with enough money to fund eight scholarships instead of the 12 permitted by NCAA rules. What’s more, the maximum covers the entire team, not just incoming freshmen.

What works best: When researching sports programs, ask a coach if the sport is fully funded and how many scholarships he or she is prepared to hand out to incoming freshmen.

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