Recently, my old friend, Alex Wolff, had an op-ed piece in Sports Illustrated in which he predicted that a metaphoric meteor would hit the National Collegiate Athletic Association. His meteor consisted of the lawsuit by various ex-players, led by Ed O’Bannon, that challenges the NCAA’s right to use their likenesses in video games and other profitable enterprises without any compensation whatsoever. Adding velocity to Alex’s meteor are the regular op-ed columns by Joe Nocera of The New York Times pointing out the hypocrisy and unethical behavior of the NCAA.
All this led to the article’s subhead: “Reviled and legally besieged, the NCAA faces the stiffest challenge yet to its power.”
All of Alex's assertions are true -- especially the hypocrisy and unethical behavior -- and yet strangely irrelevant, even the lawsuit which the plaintiffs might win in the lower courts. One of my advantages and disadvantages of having studied college sports for over 30 years, and also having tilted full blast against the NCAA’s windmills during that time, is that I have seen it all before and, therefore, hold in abeyance all judgments as to the NCAA losing its grip on college sports.
Since 1980, The New York Times has had a stream of editorials, articles, and even investigative reports attacking the NCAA. In addition, its best sports columnists, especially Ira Berkow and Robert Lipsyte, regularly pummeled the NCAA and, on occasion, George Vecsey and others joined in. Nothing changed.
Moreover, Sports Illustrated has hardly been silent -- in fact, one of Alex’s best pieces was done in the early 1990s and called for the death penalty for the out-of-control University of Miami football program. Miami and the NCAA played on.
Now, Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit is a nice twist on an old legal story -- the NCAA has been sued before, sometimes paid millions to settle, and grows in power. There is no question that the O’Bannon suit has logic, ethics and justice on its side.
But many cases with similar attributes die in the courts. If O’Bannon wins in the present court, the NCAA will appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Because the case could set the precedent of turning college athletes into professionals and thus forever overturn the nature and history of college sports, the conservative majority may back away from finding for O’Bannon.
But if they did -- and the media never discusses this possibility -- the plaintiffs’ victory could be short-lived. The NCAA has close friends in Congress -- all those representatives sitting in the skyboxes of their local schools for football and basketball game -- and the association would immediately ask its political friends to write a new law to nullify the Supreme Court’s judgment, possibly to give the NCAA special status similar to Major League Baseball’s.
Ironically, congressional support for the NCAA transcends partisan politics. Members from both sides of the aisle would rally behind the association because the NCAA is the keeper of college sports, and the vast majority of Americans love college sports and politicians have no appetite for going against this love.
So, Alex, good try. As always, your heart is in the right place. It is important to keep fighting the NCAA and to point out its hypocrisy and cant. I would love you to be right about the NCAA’s decline but, sadly, all my years of observing college sports tell me otherwise.
Murray Sperber is a visiting professor in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program at the University of California at Berkeley.
As the lurid details of the events that have catapulted Pennsylvania State University into the headlines have emerged, the rush to impose consequences has seemingly overwhelmed good sense and thoughtful, deliberative reaction. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s imposition of penalties -- taking away victories earned on the football field, banning post season bowl participation, loss of athletic scholarships, and a fine of $60 million -- seem, with one exception, to miss what ought to be the targets of everyone’s understandable wrath.
In addition, there are serious questions about how and why the NCAA has chosen to assert jurisdiction over these matters, and what precedent this establishes for future events involving NCAA member schools.
First, the wrongdoers. From all the evidence assembled and made public, Jerry Sandusky has been convicted by a jury and will undoubtedly spend the balance of his days in prison. Former President Graham Spanier and the two administrators implicated in the cover-up of the Sandusky crimes have been fired. Two, and possibly all three, face criminal prosecution, as well. Coach Paterno has died. With the exception of the taking away of victories from the team, which officially denies Paterno and his family the distinction of being the football coach with the most victories of any in history, none of the other penalties imposed affect any of the individuals involved in the events.
Second, the victims. While the actual victims of the horrendous crimes have the satisfaction of Sandusky’s conviction, and will be entitled to civil remedies against the individual wrongdoers, and very likely the university, the NCAA punishment does nothing to compensate the children or their families. The money penalties are going to establish a new charitable enterprise to focus attention on child abuse, a worthy cause, but will do nothing to help the victims associated with this tragedy.
Third, the new victims. The NCAA sanctions affecting bowl games and athletic scholarships will now affect athletes who have done absolutely nothing wrong. And the financial sanctions risk impacting the entire student body and faculty at Penn State. While the NCAA has gotten most of the headlines, the Big Ten Conference imposed its own sanctions on Penn State, including its annual share of television revenue for four years. In combination with the NCAA fine, the university will lose $73 million. Add to that sum the expected funds necessary to resolve civil cases that the crime victims will be entitled to receive, plus litigation costs, and the sums involved could, according to one of the trustees, approach $500 million. There is the further concern that liability insurance carriers could decline coverage of legal claims if it is shown the wrongdoing by Penn State officials was intentional. Typically, coverage is limited to acts of negligence.
With the athletic program hobbled by the sanctions and loss of television revenue, funding the payment of these matters will likely require that either students, through tuition hikes and/or fees, or taxpayers be required to pay up. And as this all plays out, is there any doubt students who might ordinarily choose to attend Penn State will go elsewhere, and a superb faculty, assembled over decades, will slowly but surely drift away to other institutions where resources will not be drained paying for the sins of five people long gone from the institution?
Obviously, not all of these potential consequences are due to the NCAA and Big Ten conference. But the piling on, without a clearly defined purpose and questionable subject matter jurisdiction, is unnecessary, at best, and sadly misdirected.
There is no evidence that the events in any way involved intercollegiate competition, improperly recruiting athletes, providing improper benefits to athletes or any other rule in the NCAA’s micromanaging of competition-related conduct. The use of the notion of “institutional control” as the basis for the NCAA’s jurisdiction in this instance can now be used to assert NCAA sanctions in any event that involves a university and its athletic program employees and students. This seems significantly beyond the legitimate jurisdiction of, and purpose for, the NCAA.
While public universities have been experiencing reductions of state financial support for many years, few if any could withstand the dimension of the impacts that are being imposed, without serious consequences to the academic mission of the institution.
So what has the NCAA really accomplished? With the exception of the Paterno victory reduction (which seems entirely appropriate), its sanctions miss the wrongdoers, miss the crime victims, and in a sense, create a new category of victims (students, faculty, taxpayers and the academic vitality of the university).
The precedent being set raises, in my mind, serious questions about the future. One example: what if the tragic shooting events several years ago at Virginia Tech involved either an athlete or former employee of the athletic department, and as an evaluation later determined, the school had not undertaken sufficient steps to warn other students of the danger as events unfolded. Would such circumstances call for NCAA sanctions over and above the criminal and civil justice responses? After all, the crimes would have been related to the athletic department, and the university’s “institutional control” was found to be inadequate.
The NCAA’s actions in this instance, leaving aside any arguments about due process, feel more like politicians, each trying to one up each other offering competing, kneejerk legislative proposals in response to the world’s latest tragedy, rather than the thoughtful, effective, and properly targeted sanctions expected of respected educators.
Robert L. King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
The realignment of major college football conferences highlights the explosive growth of commercialism in college sports, and universities’ willingness to exploit supposedly amateur athletes to reach new television markets. Most sports fans are aware that universities already pay athletes in the form of room and board, tuition and fees, an investment that can range from $30,000 to $50,000 a year. However, given rapid industry expansion, it is reasonable to ask if college athletes deserve a raise.
There are good reasons to raise the National Collegiate Athletic Association's cap on player compensation. Big-time college athletes are generating more revenue than ever, much of which is funneled into non-revenue and women’s sports. They provide great commercial entertainment and a marketing platform for hundreds of other non-sports products. Although other merit award recipients contribute to campus life, they do not fill stadiums with thousands of fans. They do not risk serious injury daily, and coaches do not control their lives from dawn to dusk.
From an academic perspective, the most reasonable way to increase player compensation is to enhance their opportunity to receive the education a scholarship is supposed to provide. As John Thompson, Georgetown’s former men’s basketball coach, has said, “If you get a scholarship, it is extremely important to understand that it has a money value to it.” A few changes in NCAA rules could significantly increase federal graduation rates for athletes, thus raising the dollar value of their scholarships.
One such proposal is to return to multiyear scholarships. This proposal, which the NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, says is gaining broad support within the NCAA, would guarantee the yearly renewal of financial aid to athletes who continue playing and adhere to team rules. Under this system, coaches would no longer be able to cancel scholarships to make room for more talented players, thus increasing the percentage of freshmen likely to graduate from the school that recruited them.
Another proposal gaining support within the NCAA is to pay athletes a stipend that would cover the full cost of attendance at their institutions. In 2009-10, the gap between the full cost of attending college and the amount the NCAA allows colleges to pay was about $3,940 at the University of Alabama. The term, “full ride,” is often used when referring to athletic scholarships. This proposal would make paying the full cost of attending college a reality and help athletes stay the course to graduation.
The federal graduation rate measures the proportion of students who graduate from the college they entered as freshmen within six years. The FGR for the general student body at the University of Florida in 2010 was 81 percent, compared with only 42 percent for football players. Multiyear scholarships covering the full cost of attendance would narrow the gap between football players and other students. In fact, the graduation rate for players would likely exceed that of other students at many colleges.
Proposals such as these, in conjunction with other reforms such as not allowing athletes admitted outside their colleges’ normal admissions processes to play as freshmen, would send out a strong message that the NCAA is committed to athletes as students, not as commodities in a labor market. Whether the NCAA restores multiyear scholarships, or retains one-year awards whose renewal is not conditioned on athletic ability or injury, this landmark legislation would recapture the spirit of amateurism that makes college sport a distinctive entertainment product.
The NCAA should make these changes immediately. Not only would this legislation improve federal graduation, but it would help the NCAA achieve its stated purpose of treating athletes as an integral part of the student body. Research has found that the higher the retention rate, the more socially and academically integrated a student is into a college or university. Forcing athletes who have been recruiting mistakes to transfer by canceling their scholarships turns them into academic nomads.
Adopting multiyear scholarships would also be a brilliant NCAA strategy for staving off attacks from the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department, and a growing number of legal experts who think the line separating professional and collegiate sport has all but disappeared. When athletic scholarships become educational gifts rather than employment contracts, no court of law will challenge the NCAA’s commitment to education or mistake college athletes for players in the NFL.
Allen Sack, professor and interim dean in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, played on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is also president elect of the Drake Group, a faculty organization committed to academic integrity in collegiate sports.