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Renewable scholarships come under fire

What has two thumbs and is not in any way, shape, or form a legal expert? This guy.

So while I probably can't succinctly appraise the legal grounds of a federal lawsuit that seeks to challenge the NCAA's one-year limits on athlete scholarships -- I'm waiting for my brother to graduate law school; two more years and we're gravy -- I can say, as a college basketball fan and someone that has written about the pesky one-year scholarship renewal rule before, that my interest was piqued.

First, details of the suit, via the Associated Press:

The NCAA was sued in federal court Monday in a case that seeks to overturn the governing body's policy of putting one-year limits on athletic scholarships.

The suit was filed in California on behalf of former Rice football player Joseph Agnew. It claims that Agnew lost his scholarship after he underwent shoulder and ankle surgeries prior to his junior year in 2008. Rice changed coaching staffs after Agnew's freshman season, when he played in all 13 of the school's games. He appealed and had his scholarship reinstated for his junior year, but he did not play football.

Agnew's suit asks to represent other former players whose scholarships were not renewed.

In other words, Agnew's lawyers have big plans. They don't just want to sue on behalf of their client. They want to overturn the entire concept of a one-year scholarship and force the NCAA to change to an alternative practice. Rice is being represented by Steve Berman, a lead attorney in individual and class action cases against Enron, Exxon and other high-profile defendants. He's kind of a big deal, and so, by proxy, is his case.

Whether or not Berman and company have a case is, again, not my field. College basketball is. So let's focus on that.

Berman doesn't name a proposed solution in the AP report, but for the sake of argument, let's say he thinks colleges should guarantee scholarships for four years. That's not an entirely unreasonable view, but it's probably not entirely realistic, either. Colleges need the ability to do away with players that violate team rules, for example. Unequivocally guaranteeing a scholarship for four years is not exactly the best motivator of all-time, nor is it a practically flexible situation for college hoops coaches and their players.

On the other hand, the lawsuit has a very good point. College programs abuse renewable scholarships. It's just true. It doesn't happen all that often (and probably far less in basketball than in football), but the fact that it ever happens, that a player could lose his scholarship after a year for sundry unsavory reasons (through runoff, injury or any other number of vague practices), is bad enough. Throw in all the usual arguments about the way schools compensate their student-athletes, the outsized revenues schools make from the performance of those student-athletes and the great big amateurism chestnut that is probably best left in general terms for now, the problem seems even worse. Coaches, athletic directors and team personnel have all sorts of personal efficacy in determining their futures. Once prospects sign with schools, they have very little.

Given the situation, if you gave me the choice between what we have now and mandating guaranteed four-year scholarships no matter what -- a little like a long-term NBA contract -- I'd choose the latter in a heartbeat.

The best solution, then, is some sort of compromise. Here's one: The NCAA could amend its process by mandating year-over-year scholarship renewal provided the conditions of the scholarship have been met. (Yes, this is the exact sentence I used in the post linked above. I just plagiarized myself.) If a player is dismissed and his scholarship is not renewed, and he believes that action was taken without cause as clearly outlined in his scholarship agreement, that player should have the opportunity to appeal that decision in front of an independent board.

In one way or another, the NCAA needs to make it more difficult for its schools to get rid of players each offseason. It's not a widespread problem, but it is a problem, and if a high-profile lawsuit forces the NCAA to review its policies on the matter, great. If not, hopefully the NCAA considers some changes anyway. No solution is perfect, but there are solutions here.