During last fall’s NCAA football season, the crowds at Baylor University’s McLane Stadium were energized by the magnificent play of sophomore running back Silas Nacita. When Nacita was on the field he was a force to be reckoned with as he scored three touchdowns and ran for 191 yards on only 31 attempts, averaging 6.1 yards a carry. All the while he played like a human wrecking ball on special teams and collected nine tackles in only five games played. Nacita’s on-field heroics quickly made him famous on Baylor’s campus as he became a football legend and was given the autocorrect-inspired nickname “Salsa Nacho.”
Yet the source of Nacita’s popularity not only came from his play on the football field but also from the long journey that got him to Baylor. He was a walk-on player, meaning that he was not recruited or given an athletic scholarship to play football at Baylor and was accepted to the school based on his grade point average instead of his yards per attempts average. Furthermore, Nacita was one of the 100,000 plus athletes who are college student athletes in the US as Sports Illustrated reported in October 2014. Nacita slept on his friends’ couches and studied iPhone photos of required readings because he could not afford to purchase textbooks, all the while achieving stellar academics and being named to the Academic All Big-12 team.
The future looked incredibly bright for Nacita, a young football star who had travelled from Bakersfield, Calif. to Waco, Texas and had surprised doubters at every turn. That was until late February when a Baylor NCAA compliance officer found Nacita was benefiting from unsanctioned financial support, mainly in housing from an acquaintance and was removed from the Baylor football team. In a single moment, years of immense effort and progress were dashed from Nacita and the student athlete was back at the bottom, exactly where he started, homeless and now teamless.
Nacita’s removal from Baylor’s football team shines a light on a dire problem that the NCAA needs to address. Student athletes playing lucrative sports such as basketball and football at large athletic universities are not being provided the support they need to excel on the field and in the classroom. Often times, large universities that make millions from their sports program do not even provide their players with the bare minimum such as housing and food. If the NCAA and their partnered universities hope to create a collegiate sports system that allows student athletes to excel in school and competition, the big wigs in Indianapolis need to ensure that all athletes have the necessities.
Outside of student athletes like Nacita, who walked on to Division I teams, many athletes at large universities with competitive sports are provided with scholarships that cover the school’s tuition, housing and board. Yet even with the largest scholarships at the most competitive and athlete-friendly institutions, these scholarships have gaping holes where athletes are forced to go without food. This is a major problem considering that if the athlete chooses to fill their scholarship’s shortcomings with outside support, they risk ineligibility and are forced to give up their scholarships. Punishments effectively rid some athletes of their opportunity to attend college as athletic scholarships are the only route to affording higher education.
These problems reveal issues in American college athletics and academics and frequently put student athletes in front of obstacles they cannot possibly surpass. This could be seen in the case of Boise State University’s junior nose tackle Antoine Turner who was given a full ride scholarship to Boise but did not have a place to stay or a source of food in-between academic quarters, before his scholarship would kick in.
Thanks to a local Boise news station that attracted attention to Turner’s situation, the promising defensive lineman was given a special waiver that allowed Boise State to provide him special interim assistance. But the NCAA only decided to help after the situation had matured and the university requested that no one help the hapless student in fear of committing an NCAA violation. The truth of the matter is not all student athletes have their struggles publicized on the news, and the NCAA rarely provides students with special assistance waivers, meaning many student athletes do not receive the help like Turner did and many are forced to go without even when provided with a full scholarship.
On the other hand, the NCAA has made progress in providing Division I student athletes food, an area of support that seems basic but was heavily regulated and restricted as recently as last year. The policy rapidly changed when former University of Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier commented on the status of student athlete compensation when he said, “I feel like a student athlete. Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities.” Coming from one of the nations best young basketball talents, the statement grabbed a huge amount of attention and outrage. The public outcry instigated swift institutional change only a few days after Napier’s statement that allowed universities to provide their student athletes with unlimited meals. The change inspired by Napier and his “hungry husky” championship winning squad of 2014, created a positive difference in the way the NCAA provides for their players, but it also revealed how restricted and convoluted NCAA regulations are.
College athletics are undeniably a positive force in the lives of hundreds of thousands college students, and athletic scholarships provide incredible opportunities for many athletes that may not have been able to attend college otherwise. But athletic scholarships have many shortcomings that hurt students who are simply striving to learn and excel. These shortcomings hurt college sports and their players and must be addressed by the NCAA. It goes without saying that an individual such as Silas Nacita should not be punished for accepting support that most of us take for granted, and it is shameful that Nacita was punished for honestly following his dreams while trying to survive.