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Drop the Ball

Drop the Ball

August 16, 2011

In the face of a growing tsunami of moral and legal failings by National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I football and basketball programs, more than 50 university presidents recently concluded a retreat to discuss strategies to attempt to gain control over the athletic behemoth. Here’s a suggestion that would put an end to the scandals: abolish Division I football and basketball altogether, because they are hopelessly and irreparably corrupted by billion dollar television contracts and multimillion-dollar endorsement deals.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — bemoaning the loss of its 50-year run of virtuous, intercollegiate sports management -- is just the latest to join the cohort of universities enmeshed in athletic scandals. For the past year UNC has been dealing with players who accepted financial benefits from supporters and agents, a former coach who allegedly received compensation from an agent, and a tutor who provided impermissible services, just to name a few of its failings, and is now furiously preparing its response to a 42-page Notice of Allegations from the NCAA. In the midst of fund-raising for the $70 million expansion of its football stadium, the UNC development office and marketing department are surely paying their staffs overtime to assure donors that they are not wasting their money.

We have recently learned that the UNC chancellor apparently committed another violation of the Byzantine NCAA rules by responding to a question from a reporter about a scholarship offer that had been made to a prospective player. Was it a level 1 infraction? A stage 3 violation? A code B, section 2.1 misdemeanor? Who knows, but I am sure that the university and the NCAA will spend even more resources to investigate this alleged wrongdoing. The time, energy, and, of course, money that have been consumed by the chancellor and other senior administrators, university lawyers, faculty members, students, and many supporters of UNC, are irretrievably wasted. Surely universities have better priorities for increasingly scarce resources, especially as state allocations decline, private endowments are rattled by volatile markets, and philanthropists are drawn to a broadening range of interests.

Those at UNC who claim that football and its big-time sibling, basketball, generate profits from ticket sales, commercial sponsorships and contributions to the university must consider the full costs — both financial and to the integrity of the university. For example, UNC has repeatedly reminded us that the $2.7 million needed to buy out the contract of the recently released head football coach will come from the “department of athletics,” as if that somehow makes the exorbitant expense acceptable, given that this was a person who was paid more than $2 million per year, creating a reasonable expectation for responsible leadership and management. Moreover, will the department of athletics also reimburse the university for the time and energy that are now required to sort through this quagmire of allegations, charges, accusations, and assertions? To whom does the university send the bill? Can the university sue the department of athletics for damages to its reputation and finances? While totaling revenues generated by sports is straightforward, the costs are far less clear, especially when those costs involve the integrity of the university.

If participation in intercollegiate athletics is a core function of universities, then they should figure out a way to pay for sports without compromising academic and fiscal integrity, as sadly happens so often. Interestingly, some have suggested that the incentives for cheating could be altered by paying players a stipend. Scholarships provide tuition, room, and board, but the time demands of athletic practice and training require so many hours per week that it is difficult, if not impossible, for Division I athletes to earn money for other expenses, let alone spend enough time on their studies. Although it would be fair to these athletes to share in the vast revenues that are generated from their performances, universities should not divert their efforts and resources to duplicating well-established and successful institutions that already provide professional sports opportunities: the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

Competition, sportsmanship, building character, and all of the other positive attributes of organized sports that are indeed aligned with the core values of higher education do not require $70 million stadium expansions, expensive cross-country travel, or elaborate tutoring programs, just to name a few of the excesses. The Duke-UNC basketball game, the Ohio State-Michigan football game or any of the dozens of other rivalries would surely generate wholesome enthusiasm in the absence of multimillion-dollar coaching staffs. Sports, appropriately prioritized, indeed have a role to play in university life.

Too many university leaders and athletic boosters argue, nevertheless, that the system can be fixed, that it can be made more rational and accountable. With millions upon millions of dollars on the line each year in BCS games and post-season tournaments, the relative costs of cheating are, however, minimal, unless the NCAA and its member colleges and universities develop and pay for such complicated, intricate and overbearing monitoring procedures. In the end, however, the system would inevitably collapse from its own, unsustainable weight.

University presidents and their talented faculties are skilled at stating hypotheses, building complicated theoretical models, undertaking creative analyses, and articulating brilliant conclusions, but the practical and hard-nosed world of intercollegiate athletics marches to different drummers, as we have seen repeatedly over the past 100 years. To think that better monitoring and reporting can right a system with so many distorted incentives -- financial and behavioral accounting that could become immeasurably more complicated should player compensation become part of the picture -- is simply delusional.

How many scandals will it take for faculty members and other university leaders to recognize that Division I intercollegiate football and basketball have damaged these institutions, which are fundamental to a vibrant democracy and thriving economy? To my faculty colleagues and the Division I presidents, I say that we close our Division I football programs, that we punt, that we officially drop the ball. I say that we stop paying the exorbitant costs of coaches and ever more elaborate facilities. I say that we proudly assert that Division I football is simply no longer compatible with the missions of great universities. We admit that it is not possible to engage in education, research and service while enmeshed in the murky and distorted world of Division I football and basketball. Let’s redirect our talents and energies to building great universities, universities known for the critical thinking of graduates, the scholarly inquiry of faculty, and the many contributions that flow to our nation and the world from those core functions.

Bio

Lewis Margolis is associate professor of maternal and child health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

 

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