Nick Saban's abuse of the medical hardship scholarship, which has been documented by the WSJ in a piece called Alabama's Unhappy Castoffs, has caused a lot of controversy. The number of players placed on medical hardships in addition with comments such as these from a former player tends to raise a collective eye brow and point it in Nick Saban and Alabama's direction.
"It's a business," Mr. Kirschman said. "College football is all about politics. And this is a loophole in the system."
"I wasn't playing significant minutes, but I was personally upset because I did anything coach asked, I was a team player, I had a 4.0 average," said Mr. Kirschman, who played in two career games, both in 2008, and is now working full time as a robot programmer at Mercedes.
Mr. Kirschman said the school offered in the summer of 2009 to pay for his graduate degree in business—an offer he accepted—and that he still gets some of the same perks as players. "I still get game tickets, which is nice," he says.
Mr. Kirschman said the decision to take the medical scholarship was ultimately his, and that he decided to do it to open up a scholarship for the good of the team. But he said he felt he was pressured. "It was pushed," he said. "It was instigated for several players."
Others who took these scholarships say they believe the school is violating the spirit of the rule. Mr. Kirschman, the linebacker, said he injured his back in April 2008 but continued practicing with the team through the spring of 2009. That May, he was approached by coaches and trainers and asked to take a medical scholarship.
How can anyone read those comments and not think that there is something wrong with the current system for determining a medical disqualification? If a student-athlete is injured enough to warrant a disqualification why should there ever be the need to get them to agree to it? Furthermore, why should they be asked to take a medical hardship by coaches and trainers? Shouldn't a doctor be the one to make the final determination and disqualify the student-athlete? Instead, we have a WSJ report where a student-athlete says he felt pressured into the disqualification and that others who took these scholarships, but wouldn't go on record with their names, believed the school was violating the spirit of the rule. Forget that it's Alabama -- this could be any school in the country and it would still be a serious problem. This is a problem of college football becoming more and more like the NFL than it is about one particular school abusing the rules.
The NCAA by-laws state that the player must be unable to PARTICIPATE ever again; it says nothing about being able to compete at a certain performance level. How do you define participation? Guys that are walk-ons that never see the field participate, guys that are on a medical redshirt, which is different than a medical hardship in that medical redshirt players are only sitting out for a year and plan to return, are able to participate. So how was Mr. Kirschman, who was PRACTICING with the team unable to participate according to the NCAA by-laws below?
220.127.116.11 Counter Who Becomes Injured or Ill. A counter who becomes injured or ill to the point that he or she apparently never again will be able to participate in intercollegiate athletics shall not be considered a counter beginning with the academic year following the incapacitating injury or illness.
18.104.22.168.1 Incapacitating Injury or Illness. If an incapacitating injury or illness occurs prior to a prospective student-athlete’s or a student-athlete’s participation in athletically related activities and
results in the student-athlete’s inability to compete ever again, the student-athlete shall not be counted within the institution’s maximum financial aid award limitations for the current, as well as later academic years.
We believe he was able to participate but was pushed into a medical hardship in order to free up scholarship space, which in our opinion is unethical, skirts the NCAA by-laws for medical disqualification, and looks very much like something that would happen on an NFL team, not in college athletics.
In a recent article regarding how Nick Saban runs the Alabama football program, Greg McElroy is quoted as saying that the program is run like a professional organization. The type of professional organization that he is referring to is most certainly an NFL franchise.
"At Alabama we're all professionals except we're not being paid," McElroy said. "The fact remains we live in a professional organization. Coach (Nick) Saban runs a professional organization. He expects you to be punctual in the way you arrive in meetings. He expects you to come and not wear a hat to meetings. He expects your hair to be a certain length. There's rules and regulations within the organization that are run like a professional franchise."
In the NFL teams are limited to 53 players, but they are also allowed to utilize an injured reserve roster. In order to free up a spot on the 53 man roster, NFL teams are allowed to move injured players to the reserve roster and replace the player with someone from free-agency or from the draft. The player on IR is not allowed to practice or play with the team until the end of the season, at which time the coaching staff can reevaluate the roster and the health of the players on IR and make roster changes as needed. College football doesn't have free-agency (yet) and it is generally accepted that when a student-athlete commits to a school the intention is to be there for 4 years and get an education while playing football. In addition, there are transfer rules in place that require a student-athlete to sit out a year after transferring, so it is really difficult on a player to change schools in the middle of his career -- this is completely unlike the NFL.
What we think we are seeing with the abuse of the medical hardship scholarship and the large number of players that are being pushed into it is that some coaches who run their college football programs like a professional NFL team are using the medical hardship scholarship as an injured reserve loophole.
This raises a lot of questions. Let's take Alabama and Nick Saban's name off of this and just talk about the issue -- this is not a hit piece on Alabama or Nick Saban and this topic can be discussed without focusing in on the particulars of the Alabama case in the WSJ. Here are some general questions for discussion.
1. How do we reform the Medical Hardship Scholarship process and ensure that kids are not being pushed into taking one because a coach is oversigned and needs to make space in the roster?
2. If a student-athlete is given an inducement to take a medical hardship scholarship, such as season tickets in Mr. Kirschman's case, is it a violation of either the written NCAA by-laws or the spirit of the by-laws? You can't give a kid season tickets to commit to come to a school on a football scholarship, why should you be able to give him season tickets to leave, or any inducement for that matter?
3. How do you feel about coaches trying to make college football more like the NFL?
4. At what point does college football become so much like the NFL that players have to start being paid? It appears in some places they are already dealing with annual roster cuts, being placed on an IR list, and essentially drafted and placed in farm systems...all we need is a player's union, free agency, and to have the players quit going to classes and we'll have a mini NFL.
We ask these questions because we see the direction all of this is heading with the oversigning, roster cuts, medical hardships, pay-for-play, etc., and if you love college football like we do all of this is headed in the wrong direction.