Last week, a UC panel approved a new policy that would guarantee financial aid to student athletes at Division I schools in the event of a career-ending injury. Previously, only UCLA and UC Berkeley had been required to provide such protections; now UCR would be among the UC campuses covering its student athletes in this manner.
This new policy is, first and foremost, a victory for the security of student athletes. Student athletes tend to depend on athletic scholarships to pay for tuition. As keeping these scholarships is contingent — at least in part — on student athletes’ ability to perform in their sport, a severe injury can take away this critical funding in an instant. This policy, then, will ensure that student athletes do not have to drop out because of an unforeseeable circumstance.
A major issue that has arised with college athletes suffering sport-induced injuries is the decreased reporting of these injuries. When these students depend on their status as athletes for the money to attend college, they know that the school’s knowledge of an injury can end their both their athletic and academic careers. Thus, while the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) estimates that there are some 12,500 reported injuries among college athletes per year, it is likely that there are more that go unreported (or reported late and end up worsening) for the sake of maintaining their status as college students. Guaranteeing student athletes’ scholarships, then, will promote the physical well-being of college athletes by giving them less reason to hide injuries.
The new UC policy also begins to shift the purpose of student athletes away from primarily athletics to being students first. Since athletics are significant sources of revenue for universities, it is possible for them to view student athletes as cogs in a money-making machine who cease to be useful as soon as they are hurt. By forcing Division I schools to continue paying for student athletes’ scholarships, even when they have outlived any perceived usefulness as athletes, the new policy emphasizes that student athletes have dual roles in college and can still excel in one of them, even when severely injured.
While the UC’s new policy on athletic scholarships is a major win for student athletes, it is only an incomplete step toward providing the extensive protections this group requires.
For example, UC athletic scholarships tend to be awarded on a year-to-year basis, rather than for the whole four years at once (though schools like UCLA are exceptions to this tendency). This, combined with the limited amount of athletic scholarships that programs can dole out, makes earning the money every year a competition among student athletes — one, which injured athletes are unlikely to win. Four-year scholarships would provide long-term guarantees of financing for college athletes, who, barring academic troubles, would never have to worry about the status of their scholarships again.
Similarly, the more hectic and packed schedules of student athletes warrant special attention on campuses. Athletes do not get to choose when their games and practices take place, or when other team meetings and events are; thus, they have limited time spans where classes fit into their schedules. This limits their choice of classes, which can result in their graduation being pushed back as they cannot get the classes they need. To fix this problem, the UC system can provide priority for student athletes in scheduling their necessary courses. This would reduce the stress of the academic half of student athletes’ lives.
While the new UC policy would benefit student athletes in Division I and II schools including UCR, it would have no effect on Division III schools, such as UC Merced. Division III is the largest of the three NCAA divisions, both in terms of number of schools and number of students, but its member schools do not provide athletic scholarships. Nevertheless, severe injuries can and do happen in these schools, which means that their athletes have no protection against the inconveniences such injuries cause, nor from associated medical expenses. To get around these disadvantages of participating in sports in Division III, the NCAA (or its member schools) should provide some form of catastrophic injury insurance for students who are harmed by their activities. Otherwise, Division III sports are scarcely better than the youth sports leagues in these students’ hometowns.
Regardless, this new athletic policy is a testament to the UC system’s acknowledgement of the need to strengthen the security provided by athletic programs such as that of UCR, and could mark the beginning of a fast rise up the Division I ladder here and elsewhere.