Cheating Means Survival: 5 Realities Of An NCAA Athlete
Let's just come out and say it: College sports are shady as hell. It starts with the NCAA and spreads down to many colleges that see their student-athletes as a lucrative source of free labor. And look, we know it's hard to feel sorry for the athletes if you're imagining them as future millionaires waiting for the NFL to call, or hard-drinking bros getting free tuition because they can run really fast. But the vast, vast majority of college athletes aren't in either category.
To get the real story on what it's like being a broke-ass cog in a multibillion-dollar industry, we spoke with an NCAA football player and a track and field athlete. They told us ...
Often, The Only Way To Survive Is To Cheat The System
You already know that college athletes aren't getting paid, and that it's actually a huge scandal when they do (more on that in a moment). But really, why should they? Sports is supposed to be something you do on the side to enrich your growth as a human being, or whatever -- it's all part of the education. But the problem is schools are often asking student-athletes to do three things:
A) Put most of your time and energy into your education (the NCAA has strict requirements about maintaining good grades);
B) Pay for it yourself with a part-time job;
C) Treat athletics as the most important thing in your life, or be cut from the program.
If you don't risk paralysis at least once a season, why even bother going to school?
This is, for many student-athletes, physically impossible. And both schools and the NCAA fucking well know it. Something has to give. And usually, that something is academics.
Understand, student-athletes rarely see scholarships (maybe 2 percent receive athletic scholarships). They're then asked to devote stupidly long hours to the sport (as our football source describes it, a typical morning includes "film, workouts, practice, meetings, and more film, from 4:45 to 11:10 a.m." -- that's before classes even start). That's in addition to juggling a full class schedule and probably making room for a part-time job to pay the living expenses that loans and financial aid won't cover. So how is your average 19-year-old supposed to pull that off in a 24-hour day?
Well, according to our sources, the solution is simple: either find a way to game the system, or cheat your ass off.
For instance, there's what our football source (and many other student-athletes) did: something called "clustering," where students will intentionally take easier majors and pick out electives with the lightest workloads ... then make sure teammates all take the same classes. Then, "[we] find ways to divide the workload between us." Hey, at least they're learning teamwork.
You can't pass Politicizing Beyonce without help from your Kellys and Michelles.
They can do this because, as he explains, "the NCAA only judges academics by GPAs and graduation rates." This doesn't make student-athlete life easy by any means -- the work still has to be done, after all, while balancing a sports schedule rivaling the length of a work week -- but it does make it far more manageable. And hey, if they learn a little something along the way about vampires, the history of boredom, or why Kanye West won't shut up, all the better.
But even then, you might find yourself cheating to get by. Among student-athletes, this happens a lot. Most famously, at the University Of North Carolina, officials spent 20 years enrolling barely literate jocks in easy "papered" classes, where work was either brutally easy, done by other people, or just nonexistent. Then there's the anonymous ex-coach who helped thousands of athletes pass online exams by straight-up giving them the answers, in the (vain) hope that some current coach would thank him for the warm bodies by offering him a job.
A field full of kids who could only answer one question correctly:
where they must go after winning the Super Bowl.
When these people get caught, there is plenty of finger-wagging about these corrupt individuals putting athletics over the education of young people. But both of our sources, while certainly not proud of it, have absolutely screwed with the system to keep their grades up -- they're in a system that rewards it. Our track runner recalls his freshman year, where one teacher doled out daily mandatory quizzes: "Inevitably, I missed a couple for competition. Usually, professors are understanding and let you take it earlier, but this one insisted that the quizzes could only be done in class. Towards the end of class, I realized that I might end up with a bad grade." And with that, came the cheating: "I went to a teammate that had taken the class the year before and ... [got] a copy of the final from him and used it as my study guide, since it doesn't change from year to year. I did extremely well on the final."
The Schools (And Coaches) Make Obscene Money, While The Athletes Get Nothing
"Student-athlete" is a term the NCAA crafted in the '50s to avoid paying their athletes, well, anything. After all, they're just students, not employees who make obscene amounts of cash for their bosses or anything. Just silly little kids playing a silly little game for a school, not a business. With that in mind, let's look at the jaw-dropping amounts of cash these schools are raking in.
As our football player source explains, "The NCAA basketball playoffs generated $1.15 billion in ad revenue. CBS has an $11 billion, 14-year deal that pays the NCAA about $740 million per year. ESPN will probably pay about $470 million each year for the right to broadcast the college football playoffs." The people playing these games, meanwhile, will only leave the game richer if they find a dime in the urinal.
"Actually, we need you to submit the dime for urine testing to prove that it didn't come from a booster."
So where does the money go? Mostly it goes to athletic upkeep, and paying the coaches so goddamn much. There are no student-coaches -- these guys are full-blown employees, and make incredible money bossing around their sweaty, unpaid interns all day. Our football source says, "Many coaches pull in seven-figure salaries, and many more pull in six figures." In fact, almost 40 NCAA men's basketball gurus (and over 70 college football coaches) rake in at least a million. The athletes, meanwhile, may walk home with zero of these dollars, but they earned something much more important (at least in the NCAA's eyes) ... integrity. After all, we wouldn't want the money to corrupt the children, would we?
Those monsters who force $7 million a year on poor Nick Saban can stop eroding his soul any time now.
So the athletes are left to fend for themselves, financially. And if that wasn't making things quite hard enough for them ...
Students Can't Earn Money Or Goods On The Side, Unless It Has Nothing To Do With Athletics
Not only must student-athletes play for free, they can't earn money from autographs, endorsements, or video game likenesses either (and the NCAA is going to legal war to ensure it stays that way). If that's not enough, student-athletes also can't receive anything -- and we mean anything -- even remotely related to being a student-athlete unless they pay for it. With the money they don't have, mind you.
Not even a copy of the game they star in.
As our football source recalls, "I once worked for my school's football camp by helping and evaluating high school players' technique and athleticism. Our program, kindly enough, paid all the players who worked." Guess what? That's against the rules! It involves sporting and school, so he wasn't allowed a single rusted penny of compensation. "We could have been severely punished," he adds, "but instead, the NCAA only made the players return all the money they had earned."
It's the corporate equivalent of hanging heads on pikes so others know not to even fucking try it.
It's not just cash, either: If a student-athlete receives anything for free, in the context of "you're an athlete, so here's a thing because you're awesome," they're risking some major discipline. "If a business offers me a discount because I'm a student-athlete, I have to decline. If somebody recognizes us and offers to pay for our meal, we can't accept. Even if a fan simply offers me a bite of their sandwich, no dice." The NCAA justifies this by insisting that compensation of any kind goes against the very nature of amateurism, and also that gaunt, starving kids have more competitive fire, apparently. Do they also rail against grade-school soccer teams whose coaches buy their players post-practice ice cream?
Thirty-one flavors vs. zero tolerance.
Our track and field source has a similar tale. "One of the jumpers on our team was competing at the National Championships. ... An alumni offered to buy [him] some dinner, which he accepted. The next day ... our coach asked him what he did the night before to get ready. My teammate told him about the alumni and the dinner, and my coach flipped out. Even though the competition was drawing close, they both had to go back to the hotel, find the man, and give him some money -- all on the off-chance that someone might report it to the NCAA."
And now that we know that most players are cut out of the rewards that come with playing sports, let's talk about some of the risks they're taking on ...
If Players Get Hurt, They're On Their Own (And Absolutely Screwed)
Sure, injuries are part of the game -- even Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights can't magically give you an indestructible body. You've got your concussions: Roughly 5 percent of college football players rattle their thought-goo at least once a season ... and that's just what's reported. Players and staff dismiss up to 26 times as many concussions so they can continue playing. And then you've got your broken bones, muscle tears, and busted ribs. Well, even the injuries that won't make you forget your last name can still make the "student" part of "student-athlete" way more difficult than it already is (try studying for your physics final while barely able to move or breathe). And if you get hurt, good luck getting anyone in the school or NCAA to give a shit about you.
The NCAA very likely won't cover a penny of your health care bill unless it meets their particular standards for horrific. To qualify for their "catastrophic injury fund," all you have to do is run up a bill exceeding $90,000. Naturally, most major injuries don't even approach that. Football player Cal Schaefer, for example, double-broke his leg and got hit with a $35,000 hospital bill. That's not nearly catastrophic enough, so he's forced to deal with the balance entirely on his own.
At least he had all that money saved from those part-time jobs he didn't have time for and now can't physically do.
As for the school, well, if athletes get hurt and can't play, coaches have every right to coldly yank their scholarship, like a spoiled child throwing his toys against the wall after the batteries die. It happened to Kyle Hardrick and Joseph Agnew, among many others. In Hardrick's case, a major knee injury won him a revoked scholarship, unpaid medical/tuition bills, and an inability to transfer schools until he can pay off the balance. For Agnew, a combination of injuries (plus a new coach who just plain didn't like him) cost him his scholarship after just two years. He did successfully sue to win his scholarship back, but only for a year. He was totally on his own after that.
Basically, get hurt more than Murphy in RoboCop, or don't get hurt at all.
Schools can do this because, classically, athletic scholarships are for one year only. This way, schools can quickly cut bait once kids begin to suck due to their bodies crumbling like a proverbial beer can smashed against a forehead. And even though the NCAA recently began allowing multiyear scholarships, few schools take advantage. See, they like keeping their jocks on short leashes; as one athletic director so warmly put it, "Who gets a four-year, $120K deal guaranteed at age 17? The last thing young people need right now is more entitlement." In other words, don't blame the stress, lack of pay, lack of training, lack of health care, or lack of nutrition. Just blame those goddamn entitled millennials! This is about integrity, dammit!
Drug Testing Is An Arbitrary Joke
Despite a "banned list" lumping Ritalin, marijuana, and caffeine together with cocaine, heroin, and steroids, the NCAA doesn't actually give a fuck about drugs. If a pill, needle, or even snort (cocaine is shockingly prevalent, especially in lacrosse) makes the athlete better and grows that big pile of money the league spends all day gawking lovingly at, then the league is totally willing to look the other way.
They don't care about the coke, they just want to know who you got the rolled-up dollar bill to snort it from.
Of course, testing still happens, since the NCAA has to pretend they care about the integrity of the game. But they don't do the testing -- the schools are responsible for that. This results in a system that is completely arbitrary, with rules changing from school to school because the NCAA is too damn apathetic to write a hard, consistent policy and make sure everybody enforces it.
In our track source's case, somebody got caught with marijuana, "so the entire team was subjected to a drug test the next day." This came after a weekend of partying, so many weren't clean at all. Luckily, virtually everyone passed their pot quiz, because the team had, "a single athletic trainer watching over the entire process, and he was too busy collecting samples to watch how they were dispersed. So many of us weren't found out at all." Even the few busted students got off scot-free because "there was actually no drug code at all for our team." So nobody got in trouble, nobody was going to get in trouble, and the whole thing was just an exercise in bullshitting an organization that only cares about drugs when it wins them PR points.
Or when it's time to do shots.
This collective emoji shrug goes triple for steroids. Right now, the current rate for positive tests is just a tick above zero. So why does every other athlete look like the Hulk's big brother? Simply put, it's because their school likely doesn't test for steroids. Or, if they do, they'll give the kids plenty of notice and time to clean up. So now, everyone's happy: The athlete plays, the school makes money, the NCAA makes money, and the health care system makes money after these kids suffer heart attacks and strokes at age 40.
So in conclusion: As long as you don't show up to the Orange Bowl higher than Scarface, your drug issues stay nobody's concern but your own. But don't sell the drugs, because then you're making money. And that would reveal a troubling lack of integrity.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Brutal Realities Of High School Football (From A Coach) and 5 Things You Learn Helping Rich College Kids Cheat (For Pay).
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