For most, the University is a degree drive-through, a lonely academic endeavour where students get in, get a degree and get out. The exception to this general rule are the select scholarship recipients of the Elite Athletes Program (EAP).
Across the Pacific, the collegiate sporting system administered by the United States National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has seen a growing emphasis on commercialising student-athletes. In the 3 divisions of NCAA competition, over 460,000 student-athletes compete as amateurs for their colleges and for the nominal benefits of branding and education. However, pursuant to NCAA Eligibility Center guidelines in the “Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete”, US college athletes are barred from receiving compensation for anything related to their sport, and a share of NCAA revenue totalling over $1 billion.
High-achieving college stars like Duke’s Zion Williamson, the projected first pick of the 2019 NBA draft, ultimately stand to gain little from the program whilst risking injuries that could derail professional careers and future earnings into the hundreds of millions.
Although the average EAP student at USyd is no Zion Williamson, a comparison of USyd’s treatment of its athletes as a whole is considerably more telling.
NCAA programs are fundamentally governed by regulations, eligibility criteria and guidelines imposed by the inter-collegiate NCAA. Meanwhile, the EAP is a USyd-specific program and its athletes are overseen by USyd itself. A US college player is unable to play professionally and receive payment pertaining to their sport at the same time because they may only represent their college. Meanwhile, members of Sydney University sporting clubs frequently undertake activities with financial interest, free to receive sponsored benefits without breaching EAP conditions.
However, one area in which the NCAA is more beneficial for students than the EAP is the comparatively improved educational outcomes for participating students. The EAP is fundamentally an alternative entry scheme. Suitable athletic performance standards may allow “admission to a course with an ATAR of up to five points below the usual cutoff” according to the USyd admissions pathways guide. Whilst this is a substantial allowance, by and large, the EAP’s ATAR bonus mostly admits students who would still have attended university in the program’s absence.
The same is not the case in the NCAA. Whilst the ATAR discrepancy for EAP is 5 percentiles below the regular cut off, for Division 1 in the US the minimum SAT score is 400 and the highest requirement is 1010 (on a sliding scale between the two based on GPA), or scores between the 13th and 55th percentiles.
As a result, the opportunity to play collegiate sports in the NCAA allows students who otherwise would not be likely to even attend college to compete and attain a degree. This system has morphed into a form of race-based affirmative action with 51.6% of Division 1 student-athletes across the NCAA coming from African-American descent.
The benefit of USyd’s EAP program surpasses the US system when academic performance is compared. According to the EAP information booklet, expectations of those awarded sporting scholarships are firstly to “undertake tertiary-level studies” and subsequently to “represent Sydney University in their sport.” EAP students are provided complimentary access to tutoring for their studies, academic counselling, career-based services, and internship opportunities. Essentially, whilst sport is deemed an important part of their degree, it remains subordinate to academic performance and the actual degree.
In the NCAA, where lucrative prize money and national exposure are the most appealing, athletes are encouraged to focus solely on sport. Whilst attendance at class is required, academics take a backseat and in many cases, particularly for “one-and-done” students, degrees are not completed. Instead, students are forced to undertake sporting relating activities for up to 50 hours per week. Minimum mark requirements are met either barely or with creative solutions, and the potential vast academic benefits are lost.
Much has been made of the exploitative elements of the US system, and whilst the USyd alternative isn’t perfect, nor of the same prestige or exposure, its autonomy lends itself to be the fairer option for student interests.