North Carolina tells the sports governance group that it does not have the authority to punish the university for academic fraud. Association may be heading for another fight with one of its high-profile members.
Yesterday, the University of Idaho, where I am the president, accepted an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference, starting in fall 2018. The Sun Belt Conference, our current home in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Football Bowl Subdivision, elected not to renew our membership after 2017.
Faced with the option to play as an independent in FBS, awaiting conference affiliation, or join the Big Sky, a Football Championship Subdivision league where we would gain full membership, we have chosen the road that we believe positions the football program and, importantly, the entire university, for long-term success.
Some UI alumni and supporters do not agree that the FCS is our best option. Many passionate Vandals view our place in FBS as a mark of our institution’s “prestige” and “relevance.” The University of Idaho is our state’s land-grant university, the unquestioned statewide leader in higher education.
Success on the football field should complement the prestige and relevance of our academic institution. But football affiliation or performance should not define prestige and relevance. The impact of our institution should define us, as measured by the entire experience for our student body, including our athletes; by academic excellence across the university; by sustained research, scholarly activity and creative success; and by deep engagement with communities and partnerships with industry.
Why should my university's decision about what conference to play in matter to anybody outside our institution? Because I think our situation has potential implications for dozens of universities that play big-time college football and says a lot about the state of college athletics.
This is an unprecedented move in college athletics, perhaps most similar to the University of Chicago opting out of the Big Ten in 1946. But a decision needed to be made, and made now. It is the best move for our university, and for our athletics program as part of our total university experience. The University of Idaho chooses very consciously, as the University of Chicago chose so long ago, an appropriate place for its athletic programs.
The college athletics landscape faces many challenges -- litigation about use of likeness, fundamental questions about compensation of athletes, concerns about academic integrity. The enormous revenues involved in premier events like the college football playoff and the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, as well as the growing “arms race” in major college athletics, raise many questions about college athletics.
In general, we have seen a steady progression toward higher levels of expenditure and competition -- moves from Division II to Division I, from FCS to FBS, and to ever higher expenditures by premier programs.
UI moved to the FBS level 20 years ago. Since then, we have been affiliated with four different conferences and competed as an independent. And in that time, college football expenditures have increased, and rules, such as the full cost of attendance and the number of teams required for a championship, have changed. These changes should motivate other higher education institutions to reconsider the important role of athletics.
The University of Idaho has been one of the lowest-resourced athletics programs competing at the FBS level. Despite two bowl appearances in our 20 years of FBS competition, we have had very limited success on the football field, while we have had considerable success in other sports.
Nonrenewal in the Sun Belt caused us to consider how we could continue successfully in FBS football. Nonrenewal also caused us to focus on what motivates us to participate in college athletics. Our conclusion was athletics improves UI’s visibility and provides a great shared experience for fans and students as well as opportunity and valuable experience for our student-athletes.
First, we considered whether we could compete as an independent, which we did in 2013. Few, including our fans, would argue that an independent schedule suits an institution our size in a small media market with a limited national reputation. Competing as an independent would not allow Idaho to develop rivalries; independent schedules change yearly. Recruiting to such uncertainty would be difficult. To replace lost conference revenue, Idaho would have had to play three guarantee games, in which powerhouse teams pay big fees to other teams to travel to play them. Neither the student-athlete nor the fan experience seemed desirable as an independent.
Our second consideration was seeking affiliation with a Group of 5 conference other than the Sun Belt. The Group of 5 are the five smaller, nonautonomous conferences (in contrast to the so-called Power 5 conferences): American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference. Most made little geographic sense or offered no traditional rivalries for us. Initial inquiries revealed little receptivity; conferences wondered why they would bring in a team with limited competitive success and no other clear ties.
Nevertheless, should we pursue conference affiliation, which conference makes geographic and institutional sense and what financial resources would be required to make us competitive in Group of 5 football? From a geographic perspective, the Mountain West Conference would be most desirable, but the average expenditures in that league, $38 million, are twice that of Idaho at $19 million, and literally price us out.
More typical Group of 5 expenditures, such as $29 million in the Mid-American Conference or Conference USA, still far exceed those at Idaho. In contrast, Idaho athletic expenditures are typical of Big Sky schools. Our expenditures are already subsidized by our students (though to a lesser extent than at many universities), and that subsidy is limited by our State Board of Education. Should we commit to major additional expenditures from students or donors in order to seek uncertain affiliation?
As president, I asked: At what cost, FBS? We must consider the role of athletics in the institutionwide context. Athletics complements higher education in many ways. Athletes can excel in competition, succeed as students and grow as leaders. Gallup data, for example, suggest that many college athletes are prized by employers for their ability to focus and follow through on tasks and responsibilities.
All of these qualities will be nurtured in the Big Sky Conference -- as they are for participants in that conference from our other sports, such as our conference champion (and NCAA Tournament participant) women’s basketball team. If the benefits to student-athletes continue, if our fans can enjoy realistic competition, why should we continue in the FBS arms race simply to chase a small share of the revenue now accruing to Group of 5 universities from the college football playoff? Instead, we will plan for success as an FCS affiliate.
This is a reset for our football program. We believe Big Sky football will be positive for our athletes and position them to succeed on the field -- our head football coach and I expect Idaho to compete for an FCS championship in 2018. I think our fans will benefit immensely, with opportunities to cultivate meaningful regional rivalries with similar institutions, many within a day’s drive.
We can and will create an outstanding student-athlete and communitywide experience around our program, a vibrant football culture that is a great front porch for Idaho’s leading, national research university, a draw for future students and a continued source of pride for current students. And we can do it in a way that does not constrain the university and does not distract from our core mission.
Idaho chooses to leave the football arms race and focus on excellence in competition and academics. I expect success in football in the coming years, as we conclude our Sun Belt participation and find sustained excellence in the Big Sky Conference. We will tell that story near and far. But the impact of our institution is best represented by our 100,000 proud and passionate alumni whose lives were transformed by the experiences they had at the University of Idaho.
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Since 2006, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has been carefully studying the time commitments of college athletes. The findings indicate that those participating in revenue-producing sports at the most competitive levels exceed the 40-hour-per-week limit set for actual workers by the Fair Labor Standards Act. A 2015 study revealed that college athletes were spending more time at their sport than the previous 2010 study found. In fact, from an educational perspective, there is probably no more significant roadblock for college athletes seeking a meaningful education than the unreasonable amount of time they are required to engage in practice and other athletics-related activities.
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence of the need for dramatic and immediate action to scale back athletic time demands, the NCAA has determined that more study and deliberation is necessary, thus suggesting a lack of commitment to the educational primacy it espouses. Instead of taking forceful action to prevent coaches from treating athletes like hired hands, the NCAA seems more concerned that increased free time for athletes may lead to a lower-quality entertainment product.
The NCAA acts with urgency primarily when it is facing litigation, scrutiny from Congress or political activism by athletes themselves. For instance, lawyers from the antitrust division of the U. S. Department of Justice met with the NCAA Division I board of directors in 2010 to discuss the 37-year-old, one-year renewable scholarship rule and its antitrust implications. The NCAA dealt with the antitrust concerns by swiftly reviving multiyear scholarships, an action previously viewed as quixotic when reformers proposed it.
The revival of multiyear scholarships was a win for athletes whose institutions honor multiyear commitments even if these athletes are injured or turn out to be “recruiting mistakes.” However, the rule change does not protect athletes from the often unreasonable time demands of sports. At this year’s NCAA national convention, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s proposals for reducing the time demands for athletes were tabled for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, a recent study found that student-athletes in the Pac-12 conference are spending on average 50 hours a week on athletics during the season. Of the 409 athletes in the conference interviewed by Penn Schoen Berland, a strategic consulting firm, 71 percent said that sleeping is the main thing that athletic commitments prevent them from doing. It is not reaching too far to connect poorly prepared athletes and unreasonable time demands with the recent rash of academic fraud and cheating scandals like those at Florida State University, Syracuse University, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the University of North Carolina. An army of academic counselors and learning specialists cannot be expected to turn sleep-deprived athletes with limited academic skills into good students. It is not surprising that some academic counseling programs breed academic fraud.
Other studies have found that coaches expect college athletes to engage in athletic activities that far exceed the four hours per day and 20 hours per week of countable athletically related activities allowed by NCAA rules during the playing season. The NCAA 2010 GOALS study found that athletes in Division I football spent 43.3 hours per week in athletics-related activities.
A countable athletically related activity is any activity with an athletics purpose that occurs at the direction of or is supervised by one or more institutional coaching staff members. Activities supervised by strength and conditioning coaches are also included. A major problem with this system is that coaches heavily manage the lives of college athletes, and time demands do not include many “voluntary” hours athletes are expected to give to their sport.
Some of the athletes in the Pac-12 study reported that coaches had threatened to kick them off the team for missing voluntary activities. Other athletes said they felt under duress to participate in voluntary activities for fear of moving down the depth chart. Athletes alleged that coaches have punished an entire team because an athlete missed a nonmandatory practice or workout. Not surprisingly, more than 60 percent of Pac-12 athletes said they would have much more time to study or to engage in internships if the activities that coaches say are voluntary were truly voluntary. Travel, training for rehabilitation and dressing for practice sessions or competitions also demand significant uncounted time.
The rules regarding out-of-season mandatory athletic activities are also routinely violated in the Pac-12 conference, as well as by teams in other conferences, giving college sports the look and feel of a full-time job. According to a detailed description compiled by the National Labor Relations Board in Illinois, football players at Northwestern University begin their season the first week of August with a monthlong training camp that requires 50 to 60 hours of football-related activities a week. Once the actual season begins, players devote 40 to 50 hours a week to football-related activities.
When Northwestern qualifies for a bowl game, practices continue as usual for the month of December. Immediately following the bowl game, the players begin daily strength and conditioning workouts supervised by staff members. Players begin winter workouts in mid-January to ramp up for spring football, which begins in late February and ends in mid-April after the annual spring game. When the academic year ends, players are given a couple weeks to visit their families before returning to campus for summer workouts.
As we stated at the outset of this article, it is highly unlikely the NCAA will take serious action on this issue or any other meaningful academic reform, unless some sort of litigation, a rekindled college athlete unionization movement or an action by Congress slams it up against the wall. The Pac-12 has assembled a task force to deal with these problems. This action is to be applauded, but it is simply not enough to solve a problem of this magnitude.
There is no need to delay rectifying glaring abuse of the NCAA’s four-hour-a-day and 20-hour-a-week schedule during the season, and time demands during the spring and summer must be radically rethought. To do otherwise blurs the distinction between college athletes and employees. An athletic scholarship that supposedly pays for room, board, tuition, fees and other costs of attendance but denies athletes an opportunity to have the same educational opportunities as other students is fraudulent, and highly exploitative. In fact, it should be against the law.
Allen Sack, a professor emeritus at the University of New Haven, played football on the University of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. Gerald Gurney is an assistant professor at the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma. He is president of the Drake Group and a former president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.