Vanderbilt erupts from the dugout in ecstasy after Jeren Kendall's walk-off homer. (Eric Sorensen)


Fitt: Don’t Expect Institutional Aid Reform

SEE ALSO: ABCA Notebook: Big Changes On Horizon?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The rise of Vanderbilt and Virginia to the top of the college baseball world has prompted plenty of indignation from rival coaches about the way those schools and others like Stanford, Rice and North Carolina can use financial aid and/or academic scholarships to supplement their 11.7 athletic scholarships. It’s no secret that Vanderbilt, in particular, has a huge advantage because of its massive amount of institutional aid; it doesn’t even have to sign many players to a National Letter of Intent, because it doesn’t need to give many players any athletic scholarship money at all.

The NCAA’s new baseball head, Ron Prettyman, raised some alarms last week when he told Kendall Rogers, “I want to make sure some of the loopholes are either limited or completely closed off, making it more difficult to do some of those things that creates advantages.”

But that response was out of step with the position of ABCA executive director Craig Keilitz, who represents college baseball’s coaches.

“Being an equivalency sport, we’re always going to have those issues. Schools that have more financial aid, that’s fantastic in the big scheme, because we’re giving more opportunities to student-athletes,” Keilitz said. “Now, it is uneven, and could be construed as unfair, but that’s where we are right now — 11.7 scholarships for 35 student-athletes, that doesn’t add up. So there’s a lot of moving pieces that we need to do to improve our game and give opportunities to young men to get an education and play baseball. It’s a very, very complex situation that there’s no easy answer for.”

Actually, there is one easy answer — accept the fact there is not a level playing field, and there never has been. Just as the Yankees have a lot more resources than the Oakland Athletics, LSU and Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have a lot more resources than Stony Brook and Kent State, or IPFW and Coppin State. There are haves, and there are have-nots, and there are varying degrees of both.

This is an outdoor sport that begins in February; there’s an inherent inequality right off the bat between Northern schools and Southern schools. It’s also a partial-scholarship sport where Tulane has the same 11.7 athletic scholarships to distribute to students paying $65,000 to attend as LSU has to distribute to in-state students paying $22,000 to attend. And that’s before you factor in academic scholarships financed by lottery money.

Every school should be allowed to use the resources at its disposal, and if that creates inequality, so be it. As one coach put it, “You can’t legislate equity.” Mississippi State can draw 15,000 fans, and UCLA can only draw 1,500 — that gives the Bulldogs an advantage. So should we try to neutralize that advantage by mandating that all teams play every game at a neutral site?

It’s hard enough for college baseball to attract premium athletes away from football and basketball when it only has 11.7 scholarships and a 35-man roster. If we try to reduce the amount of additional aid schools can give, we’ll only drive more top athletes to other sports — and that would be a grave mistake. Besides, baseball players should be allowed access to the same academic and financial aid that is available to other students.

Some rival coaches cry foul when baseball players at other schools get academic money with lower standardized test scores than a run-of-the-mill chemistry major who doesn’t play sports, but baseball is a special skill, like playing the violin or excelling at debate. Financial aid officers look at a student’s overall package of academics, extra-curriculars and test scores when they hand out academic money; it’s an oversimplification to boil it down to test scores only.

Ultimately, a school’s financial aid office should have some discretion when distributing merit scholarships, as long as the system isn’t being misused to give academic scholarships to poor students in order to circumvent the 11.7 athletic scholarship limit. But the inner workings of any particular university’s scholarship office are subject to oversight by the university itself, not the NCAA or the school’s conference. That’s an academic and institutional matter, not an athletic matter.

The bottom line is that using academic and financial aid is not a “loophole.” The schools that have those advantages are playing within the rules, and a number of rival coaches told us they’d do the same thing if they had those resources at their disposal.

Is it fair that some schools can give out huge amounts of aid while others cannot? Nope. But college baseball is like life — it never has been fair, and it never will be. You can either complain about it, or you can put your head down and do your best with what you’ve got. The little guys have always had to do that; now some of the big boys are having to as well.

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