Athletics

The NCAA can't be reformed -- Congress should replace it (essay)

Three weeks after a trial over the NCAA’s use of college athletes’ likenesses ended this summer, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller’s Commerce Committee began hearings on the welfare of athletes and included testimony from NCAA President Mark Emmert.  Amid the senators’ skepticism and the professed need for congressional oversight, Emmert once again promised more change to come and referred to the hearings as a “useful cattle prod.” 

The expressions of frustration, resignation and cynicism became so evident that one senator referred to Emmert as a mere minion for college presidents.  It is clear that the NCAA is experiencing an era of discontent and public distrust. Emmert’s promise of corrective change amounted to no more than a power grab by the so-called Big 5 conferences, giving increased autonomy to the wealthiest schools to further maximize revenue.  

The NCAA has once again demonstrated that it is incapable of self-reformation and in need of a complete overhaul from Congress.  It is time to repeat history.  

From 1888 to 1978, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) controlled open amateur sport in the United States.  It represented the United States in international sports governing bodies and selected U.S. teams for world championships and the Olympic Games.  The AAU created eligibility rules and defined “amateurism,” strictly controlling what athletes could receive in prize money, sponsorship or other forms of support.  Athletes possessed little or no power to question AAU rules or sanctions levied against them for violating such rules.  Athletes rebelled in opposition to antiquated rules of amateurism. Sound familiar?

In his book, The End of Amateurism in American Track and Field, Joseph Turrini provides the following description of the state of affairs in open amateur sport and the dissatisfaction with AAU governance in the mid-1970s, prior to the United States Congress’s intervention. It could very well be used to describe the current state of affairs between athletes and increasingly wealthy NCAA football bowl subdivision institutions.

            When the 1970’s crested, athlete opposition emerged as a much more potent force as the athletes took advantage of new resources in their efforts to force their agenda…..

            The poor treatment of the athletes by the governing bodies and the unresolved institutions conflict between the AAU and the NCAA pushed a reluctant federal government to abandon its support of unilateral and independent AAU  control.  In the 1970s the federal government shifted from cooperative mediation to legislation and legally mandated institutional changes to address the conflicts in track and field and to protect athletes.

In 1975, the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports was formed, and this effort resulted in the 1978 Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act that established a federally chartered nonprofit organization, the United States Olympic Committee, to replace the AAU. 

The NCAA membership has established a plutocracy in which a minority of the wealthiest institutions controls a constant escalation of wasteful spending and extravagance.  In 1997, the membership ceded control of the NCAA to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), a 121-member subset of a 1,061-active-member association, caving in to the threat that FBS institutions might leave. This strategy was repeated in 2014, by the 65 most wealthy institutions known as the Big 5 Conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference , the Big 12 Conference, the Big 10 Conference and Pac-12 Conference), who so far have been successful in demanding more  autonomy and control. 

The 121 bowl subdivision institutions have used their power to block the NCAA from establishing a national football championship at their level, and instead, have established the College Football Playoff that is wholly owned by the FBS conferences. 

Unlike the NCAA Final Four basketball championship, which provides funds to benefit all NCAA athletes, the highest level championship in football and its $440 million four-team national championship playoff media revenues are not owned by the NCAA, and its proceeds are lining the pockets of conference commissioners, athletics directors and celebrity coaches instead of benefiting all NCAA athletes.

More disconcerting is the abject failure of the NCAA to retain a nexus with the educational missions of these Division I programs and a clear line of demarcation between collegiate sports and professional employment, as demonstrated in the federal court’s ruling in the lawsuit mentioned above.

Specifically, university presidents at our country’s most prestigious academic institutions deliberately waive admissions requirements for elite but often woefully academically deficient athletes and clear them for participation without insisting that they first achieve minimal reading and writing skills necessary for academic success. 

NCAA President Emmert’s often-touted promise of a world-class education as payment for their services morphs into an educational travesty. Presidents’ lockstep support of the fortunes of football and men’s basketball is self-serving and counterintuitive in relation to their institutions’ best interest and educational mission. 

Football and basketball programs are routinely requiring 40 to 50 hours of sport-related activity during the regular season, making it almost impossible for serious academic achievement and curricular exploration.  Athletic departments are running opaque academic support programs in which staff have direct conflicts of interest from managing athletes’ eligibility by seeking easy classes and friendly professors to ensure their continued participation on the field or court to control of legions of tutors who bring into question the authorship of athletes’ classwork.   

Even our finest public and private institutions, like the Universities of North Carolina and Notre Dame, have been rocked by academic fraud scandals and flagrant institutional mismanagement of academic oversight.  First-year competition of admitted athletes should be tied to those whose academic profiles are within one standard average of the student body of the institution rather the woefully inadequate current NCAA qualification standards.

Practice should also be limited to no more than 10 hours per week for those students needing remediation.  A standard for participation measured against the student body of the institution sets academic primacy over athletics and affords the opportunity for remediation of college readiness before imposing competition on the athlete.  Recruiting highly marginal athletes would become a lower priority for coaches if the elite athlete would be restricted from competition and limited from practice.

Athlete health protection should be a critical focus and it isn’t.  With concussion-related lawsuits growing, Congress is beginning to realize the NCAA has lost its way and our children are being placed at continued risk of mistreatment. The NFL limits contact practices in football to twice per week while no similar restrictions exist for college sport. College football players at all division levels are at similar risk of brain injury. 

Even the USOC has a code of conduct governing the behavior of coaches, while NCAA coaches are offered no such guidance with regard to prohibiting the physical, verbal and mental abuse of athletes.  How long will Congress wait for more young people to be harmed?

Given the current state of NCAA and institutional mismanagement of highly competitive football and basketball programs, the U.S. Congress should immediately act to establish a federally chartered organization to replace a dysfunctional NCAA to protect college athletes in the same way that it did to protect open amateur sports athletes in 1978.  

Failure to become a member of the new organization could render the institution ineligible to receive federal funds under the Higher Education Act of 1965.  Congress should mandate that the new organization have the exclusive right to establish national championships for its members in all sports, including FBS football, and to use these proceeds to advance the health, welfare and academic success of college athletes rather than provide multimillion-dollar salaries to coaches or fuel the arms race of lavish exclusive and unnecessary athletics facilities. 

Specific mandates could address athlete health and medical protection and tenured faculty oversight to prevent academic exploitation.  By strictly limiting practice and playing season participation, athletes could return to being students rather than putting in 50-hour weeks as employees. 

Further, Congress should exempt this new organization from the antitrust laws so rules capping sport operating expenses, limiting expenditures on coaches’ salaries and wages, prohibiting building athlete-only facilities and other rules that combat commercial excesses in college sports do not result in lawsuits requiring millions of dollars in legal fees or judgments.   

Such an antitrust exemption needs to be strictly limited and conditioned on athlete protection and reform requirements including improved due process processes for athletes and coaches accused of violating athletic association rules,  whistle-blower protection for faculty, students, and others too afraid to report rules violations, and national championship revenues  earmarked to provide increased scholarship benefits and athletic injury insurance for all college athletes.    

Just as the Congress replaced a dysfunctional AAU in 1978, it should act now to repair a failed college sports model whose leadership has repeatedly demonstrated incapacity to secure educational primacy or welfare for the athletes it serves.  Rather than using a cattle prod to stir NCAA reform, perhaps Congress should put them out of their misery and start afresh.

Donna Lopiano is president and founder of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm, and former president of the Women's Sports Foundation. Gerald Gurney is assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies and former head of academic support for athletes at the University of Oklahoma.

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NCAA lifts Penn State's postseason ban two years early

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The NCAA has reduced some of its sanctions against Penn State, allowing the university's football team to participate in postseason games two years earlier than originally decided.

Despite ban, paid fantasy sports leagues still popular among NCAA athletes

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NCAA: Athletics departments shouldn't oversee investigations of sex assault allegations

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NCAA says sports programs should cooperate with, but not oversee, investigations into alleged sexual assaults.

 

NCAA hopes to create for-profit classification

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In a bid to protect its nonprofit status but not lose its for-profit members, the NCAA is trying to create a new classification for for-profit colleges.

WVU coach admits that lying is part of recruiting -- and initial transcript leaves that out

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Leader of West Virginia U. football team admits in news conference that lying is part of recruiting. When the university posted transcript and video, that line was initially deleted.

NCAA governance shift is a power grab that will fuel an arms race (essay)

I recently left the confines of Division I athletics and delivered a commencement address at a Division III college where athletes compete without scholarship in true amateur fashion.  If you travel far enough back in the last century, that’s the way it was in intercollegiate athletics, as evidenced by Daniel James Brown’s fine book on the University of Washington rowing team, The Boys in the Boat. It was the 1930s and the young men who won the gold medal in crew at Hitler’s Olympics were not on scholarship. They were just glad to get on the team so the university could line up a part-time job on campus to help pay their tuition. 

The NCAA has ranged far afield from the amateur athletics model of days gone by and most of the reforms recently proposed by the NCAA would move it even closer to professional sports. Of course, Division I athletics is already big business, producing millions of dollars in revenue for universities willing and able to make the most expensive investments in their programs -- programs that look less and less like they bear any relationship to the university’s mission and role.

More on NCAA Governance

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Over the past three decades, the NCAA has regularly tweaked its governance structure to perpetuate the dominance of a few dozen universities. The so-called “big five” conferences, which have the most resources, continue to pull the strings, with two conferences (the Big Ten and Southeastern Athletic Conferences) taking the lead in calling the shots for the others.. It seems they are never satisfied with their bloated athletic budgets, especially when threatened in recent years by upstart, so-called mid-major programs that steal recruits, oftentimes beat the big boys, “mess with” the national rankings and sometimes take postseason bowl games and revenue away from the anointed few. If they have the resources to outspend their Division I colleagues, then why not fix the NCAA rules to let them do so. 

The latest round of NCAA reforms proposes a new governance structure that President Harris Pastides of the University of South Carolina described in a New York Times op-ed piece as allowing universities “to independently determine at what level they can provide resources to benefit students.” Now there’s a surefire way to kick off a race for larger athletics budgets. At the very least, they are to be commended for their honesty. 

Of course, this grab for money and power is couched in the noblest of terms -- it’s all about the athletes and paying them beyond the scholarship because they generate revenue for the programs. 

Forget the fact that only two Division I sports -- men’s football and men’s basketball -- produce the millions of dollars that fuel the NCAA sports empire and member universities, although all but a couple of dozen operate in the red anyway.  All other athletes, while valuable members of the university community, play little if any role in revenue generation for the university.  Their teams are called non-revenue sports for a reason.

So what do full scholarship athletes receive now for competing in Division 1 athletics? They receive a scholarship consisting of full tuition, room and board, books and fees, and will leave the university primarily debt-free, unlike the average university student, who will leave with $23,000 of debt.

In some of the most expensive sports -- football and basketball come to mind -- special training tables give athletes access to a quantity and quality of food not provided to other students.  Athletic programs provide academic support in the form of study halls, computer access, tutoring, advising and life skills programming, usually not available to their non-athlete counterparts.  Athletes receive special academic privileges such as signing up for class before the rush of other students, guaranteeing athletes get the classes of their choice.  Athletes receive free professional-level coaching, strength and fitness training, nutritional guidance and access to athletic trainers and physical therapists.  In the case of football, athletes travel to games in chartered jets with first-class luxury.   

It is sometimes hard to believe that our finest universities and their presidents are behind this effort to fuel what the former NCAA President Myles Brand termed the “arms race” in Division I athletic budgets.  You would think that the primacy of the academic mission and the long-held principles of amateur athletics would trump the drive toward commercialism and professionalism in the athletic department.  You would think that university presidents would be up in arms at the way the NFL and the NBA use the universities’ athletic departments as training camps and minor league clubs for professional sports. 

It is beyond me why university presidents are so quick to fall in line with powerful conference commissioners who seem to be calling the shots with these NCAA reforms.  But I have no doubt why the power conferences are working to separate themselves from some Division I universities who still see the value of equity and fairness in athletic funding.  Lately, those pesky mid-major programs such as Boise State -- my university -- and many others have showed up the big boys for what they are -- wasteful models of athletic spending that cannot be justified. 

The year that Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl our entire football budget was less than the salary alone of the Oklahoma football coach. Today, as a USA Today database shows, the Boise State budget for the entire athletic program is $37 million -- and I’m sure there are some who think that excessive. But contrast that budget to the University of Alabama at $124 million, the University of Illinois at $77 million, the University of Nebraska at $83 million or the University of Missouri at $64 million. 

What accounts for the difference, you ask?  The absurd specialization in staffing and coaching accounts for some of this, with recruiting coaches’ assignments reaching as far down as the sophomore year in high school. How embarrassing to spend all that money and then have someone with half the budget or less beat you on Saturday afternoon or, more problematical, beat you in the academic progress department, as Boise State has done to most of Division I for the past four years!

It’s time for the NCAA to take a stand for fiscal responsibility and the rightful place of intercollegiate athletics in American higher education and put a stop to the arms race by rejecting all reforms that turn an already premier and first-class experience for athletes who are also students into a system that simply models professional sports.

Three aspects of the NCAA reforms do make sense and should take precedence over all other issues. First, improved medical monitoring and changes in some rules on the field can avoid the serious aftereffects of concussion injuries.  Second, student-athletes deserve the opportunity to come back after their playing days and finish their education at the university’s expense.  Finally, there must be rules about how to protect a student from loss of an athletic scholarship because of a career-ending injury.

In the end, it’s about getting our priorities straight and focusing on the real student-athlete issues, not those fabricated by the elite few with ulterior motives. 

The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is to create a plutocracy of athletic programs that serves no useful purpose in American higher education.

Bob Kustra serves as President of Boise State University.

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Professors must take academic fraud among athletes more seriously (essay)

The National Collegiate Athletic Association rarely admits to the need to revisit an infractions case, and particularly one that strikes at the core of academic integrity issues. So when the NCAA announced an unusual and embarrassing return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reopen an academic fraud investigation that first came to light in 2011 and resulted in narrowly constructed sanctions in 2012 that affected the eligibility of a single athlete, it marked another confidence crisis in whether the NCAA can control the powerful forces of big-time college sports.

The reopening of the case also served as a measure of vindication for those on the UNC campus and in the media who bravely withstood public ridicule and even death threats.

It is undeniable that academic cheating scandals have spiked in the past decade. A 2011 review by Inside Higher Ed found a significant rise in serious academic violations during the past decade. Some critics attribute the spike in cheating to the weakened initial eligibility standards of the NCAA’s academic reform initiatives, while others point to the inherent incentives garnered from winning. 

Recent media stories document a trend of selective universities admitting athletes with woefully unprepared reading skills. They are handed to academic support advisers who manage them in predetermined class schedules and place them in academic majors that neither educate them nor prepare them for a career. The university’s traditional deal with the athlete is a bona fide college education in exchange for athletic talent. Too often the promise of an education is unfulfilled. The spikes in these fraud cases are but a fraction of the daily fraud perpetrated against athletes, and the second-class education given to them.

Several highly publicized academic scandals in major athletic programs have gone largely unaddressed by the NCAA. The University of North Carolina fraud case exposes numerous serious allegations of fraud and cover-up by athletic staff, coaches, faculty and administration, with an emphasis on shooting the messengers. The scandal has been a painful and costly journey for this great public university characterized by a steady leeching of damning indictments from former athletes and a former staff whistleblower in national media. 

The focus of the scandal is on a former professor at UNC facing a felony charge (now dropped in exchange for cooperation with UNC) of receiving a $12,000 payment for a class he didn’t teach. In the interim, several investigations conducted at the request of the university administration have consistently concluded that this was not an athletic scandal. 

In May 2014, the university contracted with Kenneth Wainstein, at $990 per hour, to conduct an independent investigation of the scandal. Advantaged by the cooperation of the professor and his former administrative assistant, Wainstein appears to be sharing his findings with the NCAA. Wainstein’s investigation has prompted a reexamination of the claims from Mary Willingham and others of a widespread and long-term academic fraud scheme designed to keep unprepared athletes competing. 

The shared findings may expose the method used to protect the eligibility of underprepared basketball and football athletes through classes that were designed to secure high grades, demanded little time or work in the form of an often-plagiarized paper, and denied them the opportunity for the education the NCAA proudly advertises as its primary mission. 

Although UNC offers the most recent example of fraudulent eligibility schemes to maintain prized athletes, recent history has demonstrated similar instances at other major athletic programs and a disturbing trend. In 2006, a scandal at Auburn University revealed unusually large numbers of directed readings courses from a “jock doc” to football players to enhance their likelihood of remaining on the field in exchange for no attendance and little work.  In what is commonly known as major clustering, one sociology professor called his department a dumping ground for athletes. The NCAA did nothing.

In 2008, the University of Michigan discovered a similar scheme perpetrated by an athletics-friendly professor there who provided at least 251 independent studies courses to varsity athletes from 2004-2007 on the subject of study skills. The NCAA failed to act. 

These three similar instances of obvious breaches of academic integrity to secure athletes’ eligibility shared the same reluctance of the NCAA to investigate further.  It should not be surprising that NCAA rule changes in minimum initial eligibility standards and punishment for those institutions failing to meet progress toward degree standards in 2003, enacted under the banner of “academic reform,” brought increased pressure on schools to protect their investments in athletic talent.

Instead of acting on these lapses of academic integrity and educational abuses of athletes, the NCAA Academic Cabinet and Management Council spent months in an effort to study the definition of academic misconduct and when schools are obligated to report instances of fraud.  After months of deliberation, not much has changed. Its new interpretation, issued in April 2014, looks very similar to the NCAA definition of academic fraud issued in 2000.

Academic fraud is not a complicated concept. For NCAA fraud to occur there must be two ingredients: an athletics nexus with the participation of athletics personnel or other institutional staff, and a fraudulent advantage affecting the eligibility of the athlete. Members of the NCAA cabinet described a reticence to interfere with institutional academic misconduct policies

Perhaps the new NCAA official interpretation defining what constitutes NCAA academic fraud spurred the reopening of the case at UNC, but the constant public outrage and allegations from athletes on CNN, HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," Bloomberg News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Raleigh News and Observer and others were more likely the catalyst. 

Media have exposed athletes who are admitted to selective institutions with severe deficiencies in basic reading skills and systematically channeled through a series of fraudulent classes, friendly faculty and non-rigorous academic majors tailored to maintain eligibility.  The fraud begins when admissions directors of selective institutions, at the directive of their their campus presidents, admit unprepared but NCAA-qualified athletes. The eligibility of these marginal athletes is cleverly managed with the assistance of some faculty.

The NCAA’s lax admission standards for student athletes incentivize schools to sacrifice integrity and the education of the athletes who will never “go pro.” Why do we continue to ignore the truth that each new recruiting class brings athletes who simply cannot do college-level academic work? It seems ludicrous to expect highly marginal athletes to maintain their coursework while they also work a full-time physical job with the risk of serious injury. The athletes deserve better.

To make good on the NCAA’s promise of a meaningful “world class education,” we should reconsider initial eligibility standards to ensure that athletes admitted to our institutions have obtained the necessary learning skills to be competitive in the classroom.  Athletes admitted to our institutions should fall within one standard deviation of the academic profiles of their entering classes. This range of preparedness provides a reasonable skill level to compete with non-athlete classmates.  At the very least, institutions must develop intensive, measurable literacy programs to support the educational needs of our underprepared athletes. The current academic culture appears to be a step removed from the instruction necessary for many of these students to be successful. Let’s be realistic about the priorities of students and work together with coaches to ensure that college readiness and academics are priorities.

It is critical that academic support programs are not physically or organizationally housed in athletics.  All academic programming for athletes such as tutoring, supplemental instruction, and reading and writing support should be directed and monitored by educators hired by the university who work closely with the student body.

A higher education is a potential way out of poverty, but if we do not make certain that our gifted revenue sport athletes have mastered basic academic skills before they embark on serious college study, then we have not only failed these students, but we have exploited them too. 

The NCAA has avoided its shared responsibility with member institutions to curb the widespread academic fraud and eligibility schemes so prevalent throughout our institutions engaging in big time sports.  It is wishful thinking to believe the NCAA will reform itself in the radical means necessary to restore public confidence.

We believe that this is moment for faculty to express their outrage and join the battle. Tenured faculty members on the department, college and faculty senate levels must assume responsibility for the academic rigor and integrity of their institutions by insisting on transparency in grading trends. Rather than deliberate institutional castigation of whistleblowers for bringing allegations of serious fraud to light, faculty outraged about academic integrity at their institutions must act.

Gerald Gurney is an assistant professor of adult and higher ed at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Drake Group. Mary Willingham is a former learning specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

 

College athlete twice accused of sexual assault may play basketball again

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On same day U.S. senator released report saying colleges don't take sex assault allegations seriously enough, word leaks that a college is recruiting an athlete who was accused of sexual assault at two other institutions.

 

Senate committee grills NCAA president about college athlete rights

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At Senate hearing, NCAA's Mark Emmert says he lacks authority to enact many changes he’d like to see in college athletics and that association's members must address the problems.

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