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 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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  • We'll discuss Thursday's NCAA vote and the implications for college sports on This Week @ Inside Higher Ed, our weekly audio show. Click here to find out more.

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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