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A Knight (Commission) Roundtable

January 23, 2007

In a year that saw college football’s first $4 million-a-year coach, an ugly brawl involving two Division I teams and a Congressional inquiry into college sports’ tax-exempt status, it’s no surprise that a leading college athletics reform group cast a wide net for discussion during a meeting on Monday.

"The angst is that we don’t have enough fingers to place on the problems," said Hodding Carter III, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

At the somewhat disjointed Knight Commission meeting, a panel on the state of Title IX bred a conversation about escalating coaches’ salaries and burgeoning athletics budgets – issues that dominated sessions at the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual convention earlier this month.

As panelists Monday pointed out, many college athletics programs continue to sink into the red, and some of the highest-paid coaches earn more than their institutions' presidents. Christine Grant, a former director of women's athletics at the University of Iowa, said the insatiable appetite for men’s basketball and football are leading some colleges to overspend and eventually drop men’s Olympic sports (swimming, wrestling, track) as a way to balance the budget.

But while the perceived problems associated with increased athletics spending are well articulated, the solutions are lacking. At the NCAA meeting, delegates conveyed a sense of powerlessness in controlling costs: Athletics directors feel pressure to keep up with their competitors, and the NCAA itself has vowed to stay largely on the sidelines, citing a concern with violating federal antitrust laws.

The Knight Commission meeting brought about another round of shrugged shoulders.

"I’m not sure until the Office for Civil Rights takes hold and runs with this that there’s any more that public data can do to help but shine more light," said Ted Leland, a former athletics director at Stanford University who a few years ago headed an Education Department Title IX commission.

"I don’t see [the antitrust-exemption efforts] as a solution in the near term," added Michael F. Adams, president of the University of Georgia. He added that even a discussion of coaches’ salaries in a public forum is frowned on by legal advisers.

Even R. Gerald Turner, co-chairman of the commission and president of Southern Methodist University, said he wasn’t optimistic that an antitrust exemption would come to fruition.

After saying she supports Congressional action and then listening to the sober assessments, Grant said, "I’m sad to hear there’s very little chance." She said until collective action is taken, athletics directors at big-time sports programs will continue to pay an inflated market value for coaches.

But Carol A. Cartwright, president emeritus of Kent State University, said administrators shouldn't be let off the hook so easily. "No one is forced to pay a coach a certain amount of money," she said. "The notion of the tone at the top has to be on the table.”

Pointing to recent data from the NCAA and the Government Accountability Office that show an overall gain in men's sports teams over the past two decades, Grant said colleges can't in good faith use Title IX as an excuse when they drop teams.

Charles E. Young, president emeritus of the University of Florida, said administrators at UCLA (where he is chancellor emeritus) were forced to drop a men's team in order to comply with the regulations of Title IX. Carter, of Chapel Hill, challenged Young to cut the costs associated with Florida's men's basketball and football programs --each of which won its most recent NCAA title -- in order to help the smaller-revenue teams.

Added Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council: “It’s going to get worse for male athletes before it gets better; I don’t see a quick fix."

As a way to exert more institutional control over athletics spending, Grant offered one solution: Let tenured faculty oversee the sports side.

In a different panel, J. Douglas Toma, an associate professor at the University of Georgia Institute of Higher Education, supported another crossover idea: Let faculty be more involved in the process of recruiting and assessing college athletes by creating review boards or other groups.

"When there’s no contact with the regular admissions process until the very end, you can see a place there where bad results would occur," Toma said. "This divide [between athletics and faculty] is needless and destructive."

Jeffrey Orleans, executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents, told commission members, some of whom are sitting college presidents, to use their bully pulpits to support limits on a coach's ability to send  text messages to athletes

Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, said during a panel discussion on pressures in the recruiting process that the early tracking of top high school athletes through fan message boards and professional Web sites that rank recruits are ways in which young athletes have become commodities.

"It's a major obsession of ours to rank everything -- athletes and institutions," Toma added. "It's pervasive not only in athletics but also in higher education."

The Knight Commission is scheduled to hold another hearing in the spring.

 

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