Yesterday my daughter – a graduate student in social work at the University of Michigan, with enough student loans for a down payment on a modest Ann Arbor house – asked me what I thought about the university’s $35 million (not counting various add-ons) contract agreement with its new football coach, Jim Harbaugh. Having closely followed the continuing dramatic rise in college football and basketball coach compensation levels, I wasn’t particularly surprised.
Some observers would argue that Harbaugh -- after wildly successful head coaching stints at Stanford and with the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers -- was not merely a candidate for the job, but the only candidate. A three-year starter at quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist for the Wolverines, he was known for a fiery demeanor and competitive streak that matched his coach, the legendary Bo Schembechler.
When asked about Michigan’s chances against Ohio State in a 1986 game that would decide the Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl representative, Harbaugh guaranteed victory, defiantly declaring, “It’s a great feeling to beat Ohio State and we’re going to have that feeling Saturday. I don't care where we play the game. I hate to say it, but we could play it in the parking lot. We could play the game at 12 noon or midnight.” (Michigan went on to win the game.)
The label “favorite son” might be an understatement in how the Michigan faithful view Harbaugh. Given the hard times that have befallen the university’s storied football program, some prefer “savior.”
Enter the newly inaugurated Michigan president Mark Schlissel, who may believe that since assuming his present position, he has arrived in some sort of alternate universe. Schlissel, a physician by training, came to Ann Arbor after a stint as the provost at (in terms of athletics, the comparatively pristine) Brown University, where a typical home football game attracts around 4,000 spectators. As Michigan fans would see it, that’s a decent tailgate turnout.
Schlissel had barely gotten comfortable in his new office chair before realizing that his first challenge wasn’t raising money for one of Michigan’s nationally renowned academic programs or providing leadership to attract world class faculty, but rather dealing with – gasp – a now competitively mediocre football program.
Early in his tenure, Schlissel – perhaps thinking he was still in Providence, not Ann Arbor – addressed the university’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. He raised concerns about various academic issues relating to athletics, including graduation rates of football players and lowered admission standards for athletes – issues that should be on the mind of any president whose school sponsors Division I football and basketball.
But faster than you could say “Go Blue,” Schlissel – under pressure from various constituencies – reversed field, apologizing to then-head football coach Brady Hoke and to Michigan coaches and athletes en masse, while offering a “clarification” of his previous remarks. Weeks later, answering a question on the search for a new Michigan athletics director, a somewhat shell-shocked Schlissel remarked, “I've really learned that this whole athletic sphere and the usual way you approach things just doesn't work.”
What Schlissel really learned is what we have known for some time. One reason college athletic reform has never taken hold is because the very people responsible for making sure academics and research are the university’s highest priorities simply aren’t in charge.
One wonders how hard Schissel had to swallow before agreeing to pay Harbaugh an annual salary of $5 million – roughly seven times what Schissel is paid to lead the entire university. And does anyone really believe that Harbaugh – as competitive/Type A as they come among his coaching peers – agreed to come to Michigan without some assurances from the university regarding “flexibility” in admissions standards for football players?
In 2004, the esteemed Yale scholar Richard Brodhead assumed the presidency of Duke University. On one of his first days in office, Brodhead was advised that Duke’s legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was being wooed by the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers.
Brodhead was advised that he had to do everything in his power to convince Krzyzewski to stay in Durham – that Coach K’s departure would do irreparable damage to the university and surely doom his presidency. Brodhead complied, going as far as to join students in “Coach K, please stay” chants and to help fill a human chain forming the letter “K” outside the building that housed Krzyzewski’s office.
Ten years later, Schissel finds himself in a similar position. When it comes to athletics, very few new university leaders have any idea of what they are getting into. Athletic departments are so financially leveraged that presidents often feel obligated to grant the wishes of fan bases and powerful donors, some of them trustees with far more interest in attracting top coaches than renowned teachers and researchers.
And if history is any indicator in the spend all you make world of college sports, an infusion of cash from the $7.3 billion ESPN college football playoff television contract will not likely lessen this dependency.
Make no mistake about it, if Jim Harbaugh returns Michigan to gridiron glory he -- like Krzyzewski at Duke -- will report to no one at the University of Michigan except himself.
Bob Malekoff is a lecturer in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
College football frenzy is peaking, soon to give way to a crescendo of basketball mania culminating in March Madness. For about 108 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, this is a distinctly mixed blessing, as intercollegiate athletics pose a drain on school finances – one that is growing steadily over time.
Schools are in an athletic arms race, feeling the necessity to spend ever more funds on high coaches’ salaries and fancy facilities lest they suffer athletic humiliation and the wrath of irate alumni and fans. According to USA Today data, more than 100 schools currently subsidize intercollegiate athletics by more than $10 million a year. The fact that the University of Florida is spending some $7 million to lure a football coach away from Colorado State shows the financial dimensions of this are huge. It is no wonder that at the recent White House college summit, Vice President Biden blasted schools for elaborate spending on stadium sky boxes.
But as President Ray Watts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently showed, it does not have to be that way. He is eliminating the school’s football program.
UAB has been a football power wannabe, playing in the shadows of its superpower state rivals, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Auburn University, which have won a majority of national championships in the past five years.
Its stadium, Legion Field, which seats almost 72,000 people, has limped along with an average attendance recently of under 15,000 fans per game. UAB takes in about $9 million in revenues from its athletics programs but spends $27 million. That $18 million loss amounts to nearly $1,000 annually for each of UAB’s 19,000 students – the equivalent of about 13 percent of the school’s in-state tuition price. Getting rid of football will eliminate some of that loss, though the school will maintain several other sports. More importantly, perhaps, the school will not have to spend tens of millions on new facilities viewed critical to remaining competitive.
Contrast the UAB experience to Ohio University, where we have some experience. Like UAB, it has a so-so football team (6-6 record) and considers a game with 15,000 attending to be pretty typical, despite its stadium capacity of 24,000. Like UAB, it plays in the shadow of a football powerhouse that regularly draws over 100,000 to its games, currently fourth-ranked Ohio State, playing UAB’s sister school Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Like UAB, OU is forced to subsidize intercollegiate sports to the tune of about $18 million a year – again, nearly $1,000 for each of its roughly 20,000 students on the Athens campus (partially disguised as part of a “student activity fee”). Both universities have medical schools. The institutional similarities are striking.
While UAB President Watts is saying “enough is enough,” Ohio President Roderick McDavis is following a more conventional path: let’s spend more to try to break into the ranks of the athletically anointed. Facing similar facility problems as UAB, OU has built a $12.5 million indoor practice facility, primarily for the football team.
It has also announced plans for an “academic center” costing more than $5 million, which will serve as a gated community of sorts where athletes but not ordinary students can study. Ostensibly, an existing study facility and the university’s library are insufficient for the athletes. Similarly, a decade ago the basketball coach made much less than McDavis, but now the coach is paid significantly more than he is.
When former Vanderbilt University President Gordon Gee made the athletic department a unit within the normal university bureaucracy, subject to all of its rules regarding budgeting and staffing, he said that if he tried to do that at Ohio State (where he also was president), he would quickly be pumping gas for a living. University presidents who try to unilaterally disarm athletics face fierce threats to job security that prevent any constructive reform to rein in college costs.
Instead, resources are misappropriated toward sports. Presidents like McDavis spend hours trying to cajole rich donors to help fund new athletic facilities when that money could finance the construction of, say, a much-needed performing arts center or more scholarships for excellent students. The crowding out of academic needs to support sports has come at a high reputational cost – OU has fallen 13 spots in the U.S. News national university listing over the past five years.
Boise State has emerged in recent years as a football power, but compares poorly with the less football-oriented University of Idaho. Despite spending more than twice as much as Idaho on athletics ($43 million versus $19 million), it loses more, and in both the Forbes and U.S. News rankings of colleges, Idaho clearly surpasses Boise. Many university presidents fail to recognize the Iron Law of Sports: when someone wins a game, someone else loses. It is impossible for a large portion of schools to achieve primacy in any given sport.
Economic pressures, however, suggest that other presidents may start biting the bullet and take the UAB route. Total college enrollments are lower today than three years ago, and high costs paired with widespread underemployment of recent college graduates are making students more price-sensitive than in the past. Passing on athletic subsidies to students in the form of higher fees is increasingly unrealistic.
The top 60 or so schools that are genuine athletic powers, about half losing $5 million or less annually on sports, are gaining control of the lucrative commercial aspects of sports through the NCAA athletic cartel. So while Watts might be catching some backlash for his decision to shut down the football program, do not be surprised if this turns out to be a recurring strategy for presidents to control costs in the future.
Additionally, the continued tales of corruption and abuse in sports that stain the reputation of higher education, such as phantom courses at the University of North Carolina, sex abuse at Penn State, and widespread cheating at other schools, should make presidents and trustees more willing to fight to withdraw from the arms race.
There is another model, where sports can be part of college life on an amateur basis without expensive coaches, ESPN television contracts, or athletic scholarships. In fact, this has been a glorious season for a New England town, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard College had an undefeated football team, and M.I.T. went 10-1, losing only in a national playoff game -- despite spending relatively modest amounts on sports. While neither school makes any list of the top 100 football powers, they are at or near the top of nearly every academic ranking.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and teaches economics at Ohio University, where Joseph Hartge is an undergraduate studying economics in the Honors Tutorial College.
A colleague of mine once asked me a rhetorical question. “What kind of magic does it take for college athletes, especially those from very disadvantaged educational backgrounds, to remain eligible when they must spend most of their waking hours training for or playing sports?”
“The magic,” he suggested, “is academic fraud.”
In his view, which I share, responsibility rests with institutional leaders whose jobs depend on currying favor with powerful alumni and other constituencies whose priority is winning national championships, not academic excellence.
Cheating scandals such as the one at the University of North Carolina are not limited to a few rogue universities. On the contrary, some violations of academic integrity are to be expected in any school that requires athletes to give so much time and attention to sports that an army of tutors and academic support personal is needed to keep them eligible. Most academic counselors are dedicated professionals, but the line between tutoring and doing athletes work for them can get a little fuzzy.
Helping athletes stay eligible becomes academic fraud when athletes’ work is done for them or when they are pushed into classes with little or no academic content.
The evidence is overwhelming that big-time college football players have little time to make college education a priority. The National Labor Relations Board in Illinois recently issued a detailed report on football at Northwestern University stating that football players “are under strict and exacting control by their coaches throughout the entire year.” Pre-season training begins six weeks before the start of the fall semester. During this period, coaches provide “hour by hour” schedules of football related activities which last from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night for an average of about 50 or 60 hours per week.
The NLRB report estimated 40 to 50 hours per week during the season devoted to games, weight training, mandatory meetings, practice, and travel. Players often go to the coaches’ offices at 8 p.m. to watch game film for a couple of hours.
In a survey of college football players undertaken several years ago, the NCAA found that football players devote about 40 hours a week on football- related activities in preparation for 12 regular season games, thus reinforcing the findings at Northwestern.
Athletes recently challenged the NCAA in a number of antitrust cases. Without those challenges, the NCAA would have made no effort to introduce significant educational reforms. The athletes deserve the stipends and scholarship enhancements ordered by the judge in the antitrust case brought by Ed O’Bannon.
However, as a college professor, I am more concerned that big-time college athletes receive the educational opportunity they were promised than the compensation that comes with further professionalizing college sport. Denying athletes those educational opportunities constitutes a breach of contract.
In order to defend athletes rights to an education, the Drake Group, an organization whose mission is to defend academic integrity in college sports, has proposed educational reforms which should be embraced by every accredited institution of higher education and be institutionalized in NCAA rules and regulations where appropriate.
These reforms include:
Allow freshman eligibility for only those athletes whose high school grade point average or standardized test scores are within one standard deviation from the mean academic profile of their entering class, thus giving special admits time to adjust to a more competitive academic environment than they may be use to.
Athletes must maintain a cumulative GPR of 2.0 in order to be eligible for sports, thus sending a clear message that education gets top priority. Athletes who fall below 2.0 should be given two semesters to raise their GPA to that level or lose their athletic scholarship.
Provide extensive academic remediation for athletes who are ineligible to play as freshmen and limit their practice time to 10 hours a week. Remediation should begin in the summer before these athletes enter college.
Require that all academic and counseling support services for college athletes be under the direct supervision of and budgetary control of the institution’s academic authority, administered externally to the athletic department, and be consistent with counseling and support services for all students.
Require institutions to provide “whistle blower protections” for those who disclose unethical conduct or institutional rules violations related to the conduct of athletics programs.
Require all NCAA institutions to award multiyear scholarships that extend to graduation and that cannot be cancelled for injury or contributions to a team’s success. Cancelation should be permitted only for voluntary withdrawal or serious violations of team rules.
Require the faculty senate (or other highest faculty governance authority) to closely examine athletic department and coaches’ rules (other than those promulgated by the NCAA) to ensure they are compatible with educational best practices. Faculty should have the final say on this.
The NCAA’s 20 hour a week (4 hours a day) rule should be strictly enforced and the scholarships of players who skip supposedly “voluntary” workouts during the year to devote their time to non-athletically related activities should be protected.
Institutions should work with faculty senates to ensure that athletic contests are scheduled to minimize conflict with class attendance, and no athlete should be prohibited from taking a class that may occasionally conflict with a practice, or team meeting.
Institutions should have a tenured faculty-only Committee on Academic Oversight elected by the faculty senate to report annually to the senate on the academic progress of college athletes and, when possible, to compare such data to non-athletes. This report would list independent studies taken, grades received, and professors teaching. It would also include a list of athletes’ advisors, courses taken, faculty who taught those courses and grades received. Care would be taken to adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
This is only a partial list of reforms that should be instituted. In the coming years, Congress should take a very close look at the way college sports in American higher education is governed. Perhaps the NCAA should be totally replaced by a federally chartered corporation that is willing to institute meaningful reforms that go well beyond the proposals mentioned above. America’s colleges and universities are a national treasure. Should college sport be governed by an organization that appears to have put education on the sidelines?
Allen Sack, a professor in the college of business at the University of New Haven, played on the University of Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship football team. He is past president of the Drake Group
U. of Tennessee angers many fans and alumni with plan to drop the "Lady Vols" logo, which supporters say is a sign of honor. But most colleges that once used such names for women's teams dropped them long ago.
A year after it voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, American Studies Association is sticking to its guns. But it wants to broaden its public image, and demonstrate involvement in activism beyond Middle East.
While most of the challenges to the theory of amateurism in college athletics come from reformers who detest the whole enterprise and would like to see it radically transformed or eliminated, the defenders of intercollegiate sports do themselves no favors by pretending that they do not pay the athletes. In fact, we in America's colleges and universities not only pay them, we compete for their services in a marketplace where the price paid per athlete varies dramatically from institution to institution.
We disguise this price competition by pretending that various things are true. We pretend that a scholarship that produces the same net cost of attendance to a student-athlete at all competitive institutions is the same thing as providing equal value for equal work. The work may be equal, defined by the rules of games that are reasonably uniform, but the pay we provide to the athlete is not at all equal.
This is because the product we give the student-athlete, let us say a four-year college education, has very different prices at the various schools. A Stanford degree costs approximately $60,000 x 4, or $240,000, while an Ohio State University degree costs approximately $22,000 x 4 or $88,000 (in-state) or $38,000 x 4 or $152,000 (out of state).
Thus a full-scholarship athlete from the state of Ohio being recruited by Stanford is being offered compensation worth $240,000 while Ohio State is only offering that same person $88,000. Even an out-of-state student being recruited by both institutions will only get an offer of compensation worth $152,000 at Ohio State, well below Stanford's offer of $240,000.
Additionally, universities bid for the services of student-athletes by offering a host of non-monetized but nonetheless valuable benefits. These include publicity, exposure on television, endless specialized training, and a wide range of other benefits that if purchased outside the university would have significant market value. Here, the recruited athlete receives these payments as in-kind compensation that builds value for future professional opportunities.
These non-monetized benefits also vary by institution. If the institution is part of a group that gets superior television coverage, the value of the benefit is much greater to the student-athlete than a similar benefit from an institution without superior television coverage.
The academic benefits are also of considerable value since only a fraction of these paid athletes will find professional sports careers. The elaborate academic advising centers, for those who use them, provide a benefit that if purchased in the outside market place for tutors and other support professionals would be a significant cost. The scale and effectiveness of these academic centers also varies significantly by institution, representing yet another variable compensation item offered to student-athletes.
Why then, when college athletics is under attack as if operating a standardized monopoly cartel that controls and standardizes competition for athletic talent and manages its affairs in constraint of trade, do the NCAA, the conferences, and the institutions not respond with the facts? These facts prove that a competitive marketplace for athletes exists, and that colleges and universities compete in this marketplace by paying much different compensation to student-athletes to recruit their services for individual institutions.
If professional football and basketball allowed players to compete right out of high school, the competition would, of course, be different, because the most marketable athletes would go pro immediately. This, however, would not reduce the competition among universities for the remaining college-level talent.
We may imagine that we can preserve the notion that athletes play for the home school because of loyalty and commitment to the institution, but the fact that we recruit talented athletes from across the nation and the world, and that student-athletes make the best deal they can for the highest value package of benefits a university provides, makes it clear that this is an open market for student-athlete talent.
It is possible we do not pay them enough, it is possible we should have different rules about how we pay them, but it is not really possible to pretend we do not pay them different amounts by school.
Some may think that recognizing the widely varying pay provided to athletes at different institutions detracts from their status as students. This, too, is not the case, since we pay different amounts to many categories of students to achieve various institutional objectives without anyone imagining that the full scholarship academic superstar is less of a student than the full-pay middle-class student without financial aid. These two students are equally students, but differentially paid by the university to attend and in one way or another enhance the institution's programs.
The resistance to external payments to student-athletes can also come from failing to distinguish different kinds of pay and the effect these might have on the integrity of the college sports programs. Right now, under the current system, the NCAA and the institutions regard athletically related income as a major violation of the rules (as the recent controversies over Johnny Manziel and the University of Georgia's Todd Gurley exemplify). This restriction will likely fade away in the face of legal challenges and already has been weakened by the settlement of the video game lawsuit. Ideally, in the future, it should only be a problem for student-athletes to earn money from leveraging their college athletic celebrity status in advertising or sports promotion (as coaches do) if there is a conflict of interest or a conflict of commitment.
The conflict of interest would occur, for example, if a student-athlete is paid by an apparel manufacturer for appearances when a different and competing apparel manufacturer has a university contract. In that case we have a conflict of interest, and the university can forbid the arrangement.
The conflict of commitment would occur if an athlete, during the season, participates in a television production that conflicts in time and place with the practices, games, and class attendance required of student-athletes. This conflict of commitment would prompt the university to forbid that deal too.
While this may seem complicated, in fact, most universities have already dealt with all these issues in their contracts with coaches. This is not just about football or basketball, and applies to other sports where there's a market for professional talent. Coaches cannot accept endorsement contracts, television appearances, or other commitments without permission of the university, which reviews proposals to ensure that there is no conflict of commitment or interest.
Take for example, a coach in a non-revenue sport, say tennis. This superstar coach is recruited by a private for-profit tennis club to provide coaching advice and training before and during a major pre-Olympic national tennis tournament. The coach wants to do this, and would be well paid, but the university, after reviewing the activities required by this opportunity, denies the request to participate. The outside activity would take too much of the coach's time during the college tennis season, thereby creating a conflict of commitment.
While it is fine to imagine that in some magical and imaginary time college athletics was an amateur activity carried out for the fun of the game and the glory to alma mater, that time probably never existed, and in any case no longer exists. We buy student-athletes in a highly competitive marketplace and pay widely differentiated compensation to these athletes depending on their value to us.
Sometimes the best defense against attacks is a clear understanding of the financial structure of a marketplace. Then we can fight about something real, rather than shadow-box about imaginary amateurs.
John V. Lombardi is former president of Louisiana State University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of How Universities Work (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
The authoritative report last week by the former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein on the sports scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the corruption continued for at least 18 years and that the participants included at least 3100 students and multiple members of the UNC faculty, staff and administration. These numbers far transcend the usual college sports scandal, and commentators have been quick to raise a number of questions, mainly concerning how the NCAA will react to Wainstein’s findings, how UNC will gain control of the situation, etc.
However, to my knowledge and Google search, no one has asked one obvious question: how could the sports media, both local and regional, not have known about the academic transgressions and investigated them? In fact, the local paper, The News & Observer, has a long and proud history of investigating local college sports teams.
As far back as the 1980s, when Jim Valvano was North Carolina State men’s basketball coach and before his death from cancer turned him into a holy figure for ESPN, The News & Observer revealed how Valvano had brought in recruits with abysmal SAT scores -- one, Chris Washburn, had 470 out of 1600 (at the time, students received 400 for signing their names).
But where was The News & Observer during the 18-year UNC scandal? Because so many athletes, coaches, and staffers were involved, how is that the paper’s beat writers who spent enormous amounts of time, on a daily basis, with the school’s football and basketball players, and the teams’ staffers and coaches, never heard about the phony courses and phony grades? And if they heard, as journalists, how could they not have followed up on such important leads? And what about all the other journalists in North Carolina who covered the Tarheel football and basketball teams during those years?
The answer resides in the nature of sports media coverage of local college teams and players. Having lived in Bloomington, Ind., for the exact same 30 years that Bob Knight resided -- should I say reigned? -- there as men’s basketball coach, I have some insight into how a scandal can fester and never appear in the local or even the state media.
Stories of Knight psychologically and physically abusing his players circulated frequently in Bloomington, but because the local and state basketball writers were beholden to Indiana’s athletic department for access to the team, the pressbox, the media handouts, etc., and feared the department’s wrath, they never wrote about what some of them saw with their own eyes.
Finally, an outside journalist, Robert Abbott, a news -- not a sports -- producer with CNN, investigated the rumors and did the story that began the end of Knight’s years at Indiana.
I do not know the exact circumstances of the relations between the local and state media in North Carolina and UNC Chapel Hill, but I imagine that it is similar to what occurred in Bloomington, and what has long taken place in other college towns with prominent sports teams.
But will all this change in the future? Will the internet further shrink the global village and expose college sports scandals with greater speed and efficiency than has occurred at UNC Chapel Hill?
Possibly but, then again, the internet has existed for the 18 years of the UNC academic fraud and did not turn up the facts. Maybe the real solution — and the courts may impose this — is to professionalize college sports and end the pretense that all its participants are also students. When that occurs, there will no longer be any need for sham courses, sham grades, etc.
And important educational institutions like UNC Chapel Hill will not be tarnished by the fallout from similar academic fraud.
Murray Sperber teaches in the Cultural Study of Sports in Education Program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.
Football is both the national sport and the national religion (or addiction if you prefer), measured by spectators or viewers, and to a much lesser extent by participants.
It has achieved these lofty positions for several reasons, not the least because it is played and watched by millions both at the scholastic level (grade school and beyond) and at the professional level where it is a multibillion-dollar business enriching owners, players, sponsors and the television industry.
The religious analogy requires simple examination. First there is the passionate devotion of fans to their favorite college or professional team, measured by the wearing of team apparel, attendance at games including the purchase of expensive boxes, the proliferation of televised games, donations to booster clubs in the case of college games, and the American attraction to violence.
And the game is TV-friendly; despite excessive commercials, frequent time-out for injuries and replays, it is a fast-moving sport with plenty of scoring and violence.
Two caveats apply to the college level. First, most collegiate football programs are not big-time and are an integral part of the institution, rather than standing apart in terms of admission and satisfactory academic progress or in the compensation of coaches. These institutions are not the focus of this writing.
There are not more than 100 big-time programs (out of 1200 schools conferences, and affiliated organizations in the National Collegiate Athletic Association). Sixty-five of them are in the five major football conferences, and many of the 100 require institutional subsidies in addition to ticket sales, booster contributions and television revenue, which is concentrated in the elite institutions.
A second caveat is that there are a number of colleges that aspire to be in the elite group but are struggling financially because they do not have the facilities, television revenue or other funding sources of the elite. Rather, they rely increasingly on student tuition dollars or mandatory student activity fees, the uses of which students have little or no say in.
Given the success of the elite college programs and the professional arrangements of the National Football League (NFL), what are the downsides? There are many.
1. Most recently, there has been renewed attention to the short- and long-term injuries inherent in this violent sport. The focus has been on concussions, but the long-term effects of injuries go well beyond concussions.
2. Because many players come from economically deprived circumstances they may have had poor academic preparation for college and are prone to the mythology that the best career option for them is football, despite the fact that very few of them will ever play professionally and most of those who do will not get rich and will play only two or three years beyond college.
3. The pressure to keep players eligible to play too often leads toward easy or nonexistent courses (read the latest from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) that do not lead to promising careers outside of football. The message to them is that academics are secondary, only a means to the end. Graduation rates suffer as a result, and many of the athletes have little to show for their playing days.
4. The arms race at the elite college level often requires diverting institutional financial, physical and other resources toward football (or basketball) while shortchanging the academic enterprise.
5. The personal conduct of some participants is nothing short of shocking. There are many cases where domestic violence or sexual assaults by athletes have been perpetrated or alleged and where these behaviors have been overlooked by institutional administrators, with no consequences. The overall effect of these behaviors is not only a blot on the individuals’ reputation but also a serious erosion of academic values or the integrity of institutions -- sometimes to the point where the status of an institution is more defined by the success of its football program rather than the integrity or the quality of its leadership and its supposed academic heart. When the continued participation of athletes trumps standards of moral conduct, we are all diminished.
6. The NFL teams have the benefit of college football as a farm league they do not have to subsidize. They are freed from antitrust laws and many franchises have received hefty taxpayer subsidies for facilities and in the form of tax breaks. The NFL offices are granted nonprofit status – meaning they pay no federal taxes – despite the fact that they pay their CEO many millions of dollars.
The above and other problems have been the subject of reform effort for over a century. One early effort during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who was particularly concerned with a growing injury problem, led ultimately to the establishment of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as a regulatory body. Like a number of other efforts to regulate industries, the regulated took over the regulatory body and hoped-for reforms did not materialize, a problem which continues to this day.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, I was heavily involved through the American Council on Education in efforts to address some of the aforementioned problems by tightening initial eligibility and satisfactory progress standards for college athletes in all sports. (The views expressed herein do not reflect the position of ACE).
While some progress was achieved, this movement then attempted, given some initial success, to put the college presidents in charge of the NCAA. But presidents of the elite football institutions have, for the most part, not been successful in curbing academic abuses, behavioral or compensation excesses of coaches or other issues.
The current NCAA president and his predecessor were university presidents with good intentions in the direction of reform, but both were hobbled by the fact that, despite the structure, college football at the elite level is dominated by alumni and other boosters.
There have been other efforts at reforms designed to reinforce the student part of what the NCAA refers to as the “student-athlete” model. The most important of these efforts have been the several iterations over many years of the Knight Commission, each version of which has had the participation of distinguished and respected citizens including the presidents of institutions at the elite level of college football.
Reports have included recommendations that, if adhered to at the institutional level, would have done much to ameliorate the abuses of the system. But the reality is that in as many as 100 institutions, the leaders ( presidents and governing boards) are not in charge in the case of football and men’s basketball; the alumni and boosters run the show and any individual president who tries to assert control is placing his or her job at risk. So most simply back off or become part of the fan base, averting their eyes from seeing (let alone doing anything) to promote or defend what should be the primacy of academic values or personal behavioral standards.
Unilateral disarmament at the institutional level is politically impossible and multilateral disarmament has the same political issues and could easily raise antitrust litigation.
Absent leadership at the institutional level, the leadership for reform has shifted to the journalists and scholars. Joe Nocera of The New York Times is an admirable example of the former, though I believe he places too much of the blame for unaddressed problems on the NCAA rather than its member institutions.
Gregg Easterbrook has done a fine job in his book The King of Sports in detailing the problems; the same goes for Charles Clotfelter in his book Big-Time sports in American Universities. These and other writers have done invaluable work but they are not the policy makers; that group consists mostly of the adherents and beneficiaries of the system with all of its assets and liabilities
So what to do? Over the past 30 or 40 years, reform efforts have focused on strengthening the role of institutional leaders. It is time to acknowledge that, with exceptions, this has not worked for the reasons noted above. I suggest that we should acknowledge that big-time college football is here to stay -- and the same for football at the professional level, though that is not the main focus of this article. So we should now concentrate on distancing the big-time programs from the academic enterprise, the values of which have been seriously eroded by the visibility and abuses of the football culture. For me, that would take several forms indicated below:
First, let us drop the mythology inherent in the term “student-athlete” and acknowledge that for less than 100 college football programs, it is nearly impossible to be a serious student and a football player, given the extraordinary time and energy demands of the sport. We should not require the athletes in the big-time programs to be students and we should pay them market wages as contracted employees.
If they wish to be students, there would be no other special academic or financial arrangements. The NCAA has now moved in this direction (using different terminology) with the 65 institutions in the major 5 conferences gaining autonomy within Division I, which will enable them to set their own rules in important ways.
This will increase costs, meaning that for many of these institutions, there may be fewer funds available for the non-revenue (including women’s sports) programs. And it will be even more difficult for the “wannabes” to continue to compete at the highest level.
There should be a concerted effort at all levels of collegiate and professional sports to impose personal conduct rules on players and coaches that reflect what should be the case: namely, that participation or employment is a privilege and not a right, and it can be withdrawn in the case of abusive behavior through the means of personal conduct rules
Allegations of such behavior should not be judged by the athletic department but by appointees of the college administration. (In the case of the National Football League, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Basketball, and other professional associations, allegations of misbehavior should not be adjudicated by management or owners but by qualified experts appointed by the associations.)
Such adjudication should be separate from and not dependent on the criminal justice system, in keeping with the above differentiation of rights dependent on the criminal justice system and privileges granted by the owners. I would hope that standards of personal conduct would apply to coaches (and all other employees). Such applicability might begin to address the bad examples set by coaches who rant at officials or athletes, behavior which would not be tolerated by any other employees of the university or team.
These suggestions are unlikely to be adopted in the near term because of the pressures of the commercial model and the fanaticism of the fan base. But even serious consideration and debate would be better than more futile efforts at the collegiate level to get serious about the student-athlete model.
Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education.