After I wrote the column about the controversy over foreign professional tennis players in the NCAA, I wandered a half hour up Route 5 from Los Angeles to the Santa Clarita Challenger tournament at the El Paseo Club to enjoy the tennis and ask some of the players about the controversy. I hit pay dirt.
While I watched Benjamin Becker and Tyler Cleveland play in the semifinals, I happened to sit next to Becker’s host family for the week – members of the club host players to defray their expenses – and they told me about Becker’s troubles with the NCAA. After winning the match, Becker graciously spent time talking to me as he prepared for his doubles match that was about to begin.
Becker, a German, was a player at Baylor University which is featured prominently in the New York Times article I referred to. Becker is named in the article. He won the 2004 NCAA singles title and his teammate, Benedikt Dorsch, also from Germany, won the 2005 title.
Becker was investigated by the NCAA every year during his college career. “The NCAA called me about so much stuff, it was unbelievable, ” he said. His coach sat him out for the first round of the NCAA championship in his sophomore year because they weren’t sure whether his German league was professional or not.
In Germany, there is no high school tennis so you have to play on club teams if you want to improve. The clubs compete against each and players are paid. Becker did not play in any professional league while he was in college and the NCAA allows a professional to accept a scholarship if their expenses outweighed their winnings.
Becker also got into trouble because his father made a website for his son that called him a professional tennis player. Another call came because Becker is an employee of his father’s company so the NCAA accused him of being a player’s agent.
You might think that the NCAA is harassing foreign players, and it’s possible that opposing coaches turned up the heat by calling the NCAA just before an upcoming match with the player in question, but the truth is probably much more mundane. When I asked Becker for the solution to the controversy, he said that the NCAA should become more familiar with the leagues and tournaments in Europe.
As I said in my previous column, the NCAA has a $6.2 billion contract for March madness, they’re not spending their time becoming intimately familiar with the ins and outs of German club tennis. The result is that the NCAA ends up dealing with complaints one by one which penalizes the players and wastes everybody’s time. If they educated themselves properly, this wouldn’t be necessary.
Becker said that the NCAA instituted an upper age limit of twenty years old for incoming college players when he was a sophomore. This penalizes Germans because they finish high school later than in the U.S. and then have civil service duty, which can be difficult to delay. It also helps explain why some foreign players are older. However, I haven’t found any information about this age limit. If anyone knows, please drop a comment.
If you’re wondering why so many foreign players come to American universities if the foreign players are so much better – why not stay home and play against better competition? – the reason is that foreign universities don’t have athletic scholarships and competition such as you find in the NCAA. “There is nothing. Either you study and play tennis on your own or you come to America and study and play tennis here, ” Becker said.
Becker expressed frustration with the articles and complaints about foreign players. He’s obviously biased and more than a little blind to the U.S. college sports system when he says that coaches should welcome the competition: “If you really care about your player and you want them to get better, then you should have them play against better guys.” The name of the game in the NCAA is winning championships, that’s how you keep your job and get a better job. American coaches are not for or against providing a free education for foreign players, they just want to win matches.
However, I must say I agree that American players can only improve playing against superior competition.
Becker lost in the finals of the tournament. His host family waited around after the match to take him to the airport and onto his next tournament. He still gets help with his expenses here and there but he doesn’t have to answer anywhere near as many questions.