The Future of Sport Requires Tuition-Free College

By: Hudson Taylor, Founder and Executive Director of Athlete Ally

Each year I try to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by reading his writings, watching his speeches and reflecting on how I can continually improve and innovate the work I do. Particularly during Black History Month, I am always struck by the aspects of Dr. King’s legacy that are named and celebrated and those which are unspoken and ignored. In doing so, I am reminded of the importance of centering economic justice. Applying this vision to the work of Athlete Ally, I found myself asking, “In what ways does class struggle contribute to and compound LGBTQI+ struggles in and through sports?”

As an athlete, I spent my youth traveling every weekend to compete, spent all of my summers at wrestling camps or traveling with all-star wrestling teams, and came up through my sport through paid wrestling clubs. At the time, the enormous cost of my athletic pursuits hadn’t occurred to me — not only the actual money being spent, but also the time that was required for my father to get me to all of these places. I would later learn that many of those investments of time and money were all connected back to a more central goal: to earn an athletic scholarship. 

It turns out that those same dreams are shared by a lot of other parents and athletes out there. Recent surveys show that 67 percent of parents hope their kids win college scholarships.

This economically motivated thinking is devastating the health outcomes for our country and is destroying sports. Over 70% of youth athletes drop out of sports before they enter high school, with Black youth dropping out at a rate 25% higher than their white peers, and girls of color facing even more pronounced disparities. Less than one-quarter of children 6 to 17 years of age participate in 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Access to sport tremendously impacts the health and well-being of youth, leading to up to 40% higher test scores, lower rates of depression, higher self esteem, and reduced risk of heart disease, among other benefits. 

While the economics of sport contribute to these unacceptable drops in participation, they also contribute to an increase of competition between those athletes who stay in sports. When only 1.3% of college athletes receive a full or partial athletic scholarship, it is no wonder that athletes and their families see other athletes as their competition for a limited number of college scholarships or roster spots.

When I revisit Dr. King’s legacy and the centering of economic justice, I can’t help but wonder how all of this might change if colleges became tuition-free. I believe tuition-free college would transform sports for the better. Kids would no longer have to pursue athletic success in the hopes that their tuition would be paid or subsidized. This would lead to more kids playing sports for longer and for the sports they play to diversify. Universities would likely be able to lift the lid on capping rosters or would at least be better positioned to add roster spots for women. As the Supreme Court is poised to strike down affirmative action, removing the economic barriers to receiving a college degree is likely one of the few pathways to limit the expected drop in college applications from disadvantaged students. 

Lastly, tuition-free college might also help slow or stop the erosion of trans inclusive sports policies, as trans athletes would no longer be competing with cis athletes over who does and doesn’t get to play in college. Even though we know that trans girls and women aren’t taking athletic scholarships away from anyone, removing zero-sum thinking tied to athletic scholarships will drastically weaken the arguments used to keep trans girls and women from participating in sport. 

Tuition-free college is a matter of public health and a critical goal for a more just future of sports. In Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address he said, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” We have the resources to make college tuition-free, we now need to summon the clarity and conviction to finally realize it. 

Hudson’s Corner is an ongoing series featuring original thought pieces by Athlete Ally’s Founder and Executive Director, Hudson Taylor.