United States: Knowledge is Power: An Examination of California’s "Student-Athletes’ Right to Know Act"

Last February, David Sills, a 7th grade quarterback at Delaware's Red Lion Christian Academy, made a verbal commitment to attend the University of Southern California. No, Sills is not the real life Doogie Howser of football, but the coaches at USC believe he might be the next Matt Leinart and so they offered Sills a place at USC when he graduates high school five years from now. Of course, Sills is only able to verbally commit at this stage and there is always the chance that USC reneges on its verbal offer if, in the coming years, Sills does not live up to the middle school hype. Nonetheless, the fact that major college athletic programs take recruiting very seriously is clearly evidenced. How much competition there was for the verbal commitment of a middle school phenom quarterback is unclear, but the competition for other top recruits to sign a formal letter of intent is real and fierce. Even if the competition for Sills' verbal commitment was limited, USC recruiters almost certainly touted the many great advantages to playing football at USC. USC recruiters also likely emphasized the history of USC football, the school's winning tradition, and the great weather in Southern California. Oh...they probably also mentioned that a player of Sills' caliber could have all that and get a top notch education for free on a "full" athletic scholarship.

For most college athletes who will never have the opportunity to play professionally, the decision where to attend school and showcase their talents is largely driven by the scholarship package offered by the school. For example, the star high school point guard might have parents who went to Duke and he may have grown up with all of Coach K's books on his nightstand, but if North Carolina offers a better deal, he is probably wearing Tar Heel Blue next winter. Despite the importance of the decision, most prospective college athletes and their parents do not realize that "full" scholarship offers come with a lot of fine print and the receipt thereof does not mean there are no expenses to the student-athlete. For instance, what happens to the scholarship if the player is injured and who is responsible for subsequent medical bills and for how long? What happens if the player is underperforming or there is a coaching change at the school? How much does a "full" scholarship really cover and what expenses is the student-athlete still going to be responsible for? It is estimated based on a March 2009 study conducted by the National College Players Association ("NCPA"), a 14,000 member organization of current and former Division 1 athletes, student-athletes face scholarship-shortfalls ranging from $200 per year up to more than $6,000 per year. The NCAA and the vast majority of schools, if not all, have policies on all of these things (and if they do not, they should), but they are rarely at the forefront of discussion during a recruiting push. The fact that many student athletes are not aware of these issues is not the fault of the coaches or other recruiters – in fact, many will tell you that they try to make a point of going over the fine print with recruits. However, at the end of the day, the bottom-line for a recruiter is getting student-athletes to commit to their school, rather than ensuring that the student-athletes fully understand the details of their financial package or the full implications of their commitment.

On September 30, 2010, in an attempt to provide student-athletes with more disclosure of scholarship shortfalls and just as equally important NCAA and school policies, the state of California amended its Education Code by enacting the "Student-Athlete's Right to Know Act". Despite the passage of the new law being promoted as a major victory by the NCPA, a major force behind the legislation, the law is relatively hollow and poses only a limited additional burden on athletic programs. First, the law is only applicable to postsecondary institutions in California (although we may see other states enacting similar laws in the future). Consequently, if Sills were to be recruited by Texas rather than USC, he would not be impacted by the law. Second, the requirements of the law are not mandatorily imposed until January 1, 2012, so it will have no impact on this year's recruiting class (although it will have been enforced for a few years by the time Sills is eligible to sign a letter of intent). Third, the law does nothing to change the substantive nature of the rights of college athletes and is instead simply a law of disclosure. So what is the only real requirement of college coaches and recruiters from California going forward under this law? Any time they contact a potential recruit in writing they must "include a direct link to the institution's Internet Web page" that contains certain information regarding the institution's athletic scholarship program, including:

  • the most recent published costs of attendance expenses and the sum of these expenses that are prohibited by NCAA regulations from being included in full grant-in-aid scholarships;
  • whether scholarships will be extended for summer school;
  • NCAA regulations on verbal commitments versus Letter of Intents and policies on scholarship duration;
  • the policy on renewals and nonrenewals of a scholarship, including when a student-athlete is injured or performs athletically below expectations;
  • NCAA and school policies on payment of medical expenses stemming from athletic injuries; and
  • NCAA and school transfer policies for student-athletes.

In sum, the new law's only significant change is in transparency. Coaches and recruiters should not be concerned that this law is going to be a significant burden on their ability to recruit. If they have not done so already, schools should take the time now to set up a website that clearly sets out the information required by the new law in a user friendly format and ensure that their recruiting materials clearly include a link to the page. Given the little impact that the new law will have on a school's ability to recruit, and the fact that the appearance of greater transparency may be an advantage over schools that do not publish such information, there is little reason for a California school to wait until the 2012 deadline to come into compliance. Furthermore, given the importance of the issue to the NCPA, we expect the organization to pursue passage of similar laws in other states and it may prove beneficial for non-California schools to proactively comply despite not being legally mandated to do so at this juncture.

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