The male “walk-on” in college sports, and in particular in football, has become a joke. Announcers voraciously proclaim that Joe Blow or John Caric is or was just a walk on but now performs at a level above and beyond coaches expectations is a farce.
Whether a “recruited” walk-on or a “regular” walk-on these athletes are now enjoying a kind of notoriety as outlets like ESPN glorify their existence making it seem like this is a now coveted position to be in as an athlete. Of perhaps greater concern is that this glorification of the walk-on is critical to producing an ideology that anyone who arrives on campus, at least any man, has the opportunity if he works hard enough to join the ranks of the most elite, he may soon be wearing the jersey of the Ohio State Buckeyes and taking the field with 100,000 people screaming his name.
What is never mentioned in this glorification is that this spot is only reserved almost exclusively for white men who can punt or kick a football.
From our perspective, the true meaning of the term “walk on” is exemplified best in the movie RUDY.
In this fictional account of Notre Dame football Daniel Rudy Ruettiger (played by Sean Astin in the movie) so wants to play football at Notre Dame that he does what it takes to be a member of the team, including washing uniforms and taking care of the grounds, and painting the famous Fighting Irish! helmets the night before the tame. Thoug Rudy Ruettiger is real, his characters has ceased to exist in real life. Walk-ons today don’t wash uniforms or paint helmets. Instead, the walk on of today can often hold down a first string (starting position) on the team – even though he is a walk on.
How can we can explain this phenomenon? On the face of it, this does not make sense. Football and basketball programs at Division 1 colleges and universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each on recruiting, not to mention the salary of recruiting coordinators, and the time spent watching tapes, taking in high school games and visiting mom and grandma in the living room. (Dad’s are rarely the focus of recruiting visits. For an interesting perspective on this check out Oscar Robinson’s auto-biography: The Big ‘O’: My Life, My Time, My game). Why then would a coach invest any energy into developing a walk-on or extend playing time to a player that simply “walked on” instead of in the players he has spent nearly a decade trying to recruit?
Perhaps the answer lies in the way that financial aid and scholarships are doled out to high profile football and basketball programs.
Division 1 football programs provide a minimum of 85 full scholarships. Yet their rosters typically list an additional 15-20 players, non-scholarship athletes or “walk-ons.” Football programs “coordinate” with financial aid and scholarship offices such that the “walk on” receives financial support that is equivalent to at least a partial athletic scholarship.
This seems find on the surface, how nice that a football team can bring an additional 15-20 players to campus to earn an education. And, yet, these 15-20 players are more often than not receiving aid that otherwise would have gone to non-athlete students. Artists, musicians, smart kids who have financial need and no athletic ability.
So, why are most of the walk-ons we see on Saturday afternoon football games white? Is it simply because most punters and kickers happen to be white? Or is there something else at work here? That is, you don’t see Black players who are “walk-ons.”
As I argue in Race, Sport and the American Dream, stereotypes about the genetics of athletic ability result in coaches rarely if ever recruiting mediocre Black players. Black players, in college and in the professional ranks, must be “Blue Chip” athletes if they are going to be recruited or drafted. The data on starters bears this out.
So, what? Well, for starters, it means that an under-developed Black player is unlikely to be afforded the opportunity to “walk on” in the same way that an under-developed white player will be. Second, and this is likely to be more controversial, for all the concern that many white students have about under-prepared Black students being given financial support—vis-à-vis—the athletic scholarship—to attend college, it is actually white student athletes who, as walk-ons, are dipping into the financial support once reserved for non-athlete students. Third, if the walk-on is not receiving anywhere near a full scholarhip but is playing regularly, this furthers the already deep exploitation of athlete labor; in this case the athlete may be receiving little by way of “payment” for his services while contributing to the revenues generated by his team http://amzn.to/1gaOJrY.
Finally, it begs the question, what does it mean for a university to provide an additional 15-20 scholarship to a football team that already has 85 scholarships of its own, and plays, on average, no more than 30-40 players in a given season? Along with many other things, the walk-on is yet another example of athletic departments hi-jacking the system of higher education in America.
To read more see: Race, Sport and the American Dream [http://amzn.to/1gaOJrY]