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Outlook: The Real March Madness
Outlook: The Real March Madness

Why finally reforming college sports may require Congress—or the courts—to act

By B. David Ridpath

Paul Garland

When U.S. colleges and universities increase per-student spending on academics by 3 percent but boost athletic spending per football player by 52 percent, as institutions in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision did between 2005 and 2011, we have a problem.

Those statistics from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics confirm faculty members' long-held concerns about the misplaced priorities of intercollegiate athletics in the academy. Some coaches out-earn their institutions' presidents. Academic scandals are commonplace. Intercollegiate athletics have become a multibillion-dollar enterprise built on the labor of largely undercompensated college athletes. Will we ever reform intercollegiate sports?

It may take an act of the U.S. Congress.

That's what The Drake Group, a coalition of academics, former athletic administrators, and athletes working to minimize the corrosive influences of college sports on academic integrity, is proposing. Such federal legislation will draw a clear line between college and professional sports, create a structure that's more equitable to students, and refocus attention on institutional missions—educating students.

Game-changing plays

Why Congress?

The NCAA simply will not reform itself; it has rebuffed proposals to instill fairness in its judicial process and strengthen its academic policies. And most college presidents—concerned about the prestige, revenue, and other perceived benefits of winning teams—are unwilling to make needed change. For years stakeholders have discussed and dissected proposals from groups like the Knight Commission and the American Council on Education to rein in sports' outsized influence on educational institutions to no avail.

Sure, successful teams can generate institutional pride and profits for athletic powerhouses (The Ohio State University made $142 million in 2013), writes economist Robert Frank in the Knight Commission report Challenging the Myth: A Review of the Links Among College Athletic Success, Student Quality, and Donations. But not all colleges see gains, Frank cautions, and creating a winning program is costly. Short-term spikes in enrollment, fundraising, and alumni engagement are often offset by increased spending on athletics. The benefits of a successful athletic run are fleeting; the dangers of prioritizing athletics are real.

Scandals that undermine academic integrity persist. The latest example: A former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor was recently indicted for fraud when he accepted a salary for classes he never held; all the students who were enrolled and received passing grades were football players.

In many cases, institutions are failing their student-athletes: Nearly all the colleges that competed in football bowls this year graduate at least 66 percent of their white football players, but only 37 percent of these institutions graduate black players at that rate, according to a recent analysis of NCAA data.

Now the NCAA faces a lawsuit by former University of California, Los Angeles basketball standout Ed O'Bannon and other former and current student-athletes seeking compensation for the commercial use of their likeness. TDG supports the plaintiffs' efforts: That an institution can profit off an individual's name and likeness while the actual athlete cannot seems strange. Texas A&M University quarterback Johnny Manziel was suspended for half a game in 2013 for accepting compensation for his autograph, yet the NCAA and the university make money selling Manziel-related merchandise.

All these issues add up to one thing: College athletics is not likely to stay in its current form. Never before has such a large, diverse movement to reform intercollegiate athletics developed as the one including the O'Bannon plaintiffs; interested members of Congress; and activists such as the National College Players Association, which filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board to allow Northwestern University football players to unionize. A bedrock principle of the NCAA is that student-athletes compete as an avocation to an educational end and not as professional athletes. The current model of amateurism is difficult to defend when head football coaches make millions each year (the University of Alabama's Nick Saban made $5.5 million in 2013) and the NCAA and its member institutions generate billions of dollars from the fees that broadcasters pay for the right to televise sporting events.

Reform is inevitable, but what will it look like?

Put the student back in student-athlete

An O'Bannon victory will mean fundamental changes to collegiate athletics. As TDG wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief, if "the NCAA continues to treat college athletes as employees and big-time college sports as a commercial enterprise, ... it has an ethical obligation to provide basic employee rights. Among these rights are the right to a share in the revenues the athletes help to generate and the right to form labor unions and bargain collectively on all issues affecting financial compensation and working conditions. You cannot treat college athletes like employees and not provide employee rights and protections."

Another option: Public pressure forces the NCAA to seriously consider student centered-reform plans like TDG's. Our proposals to minimize the influence of commercialized college sports on academics include prohibiting freshmen from competing, which prioritizes academics at the start of athletes' college careers, and requiring athletes to maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 in order to take the field or court.

Then there's congressional intervention. To radically restructure the NCAA, we urge passage of our College Athlete Protection Act. The CAP Act would:

  • Create a collegiate athletics governing board composed of constituents unbowed by pressure and conflicts, such as retired college presidents, tenured faculty, and current and former college athletes. The new board would give equal decision-making authority to Divisions I, II, and III.
  • Allow colleges to restrict athletic events that are not in the best academic interests of student-athletes, such as midweek football games that require students to miss classes.
  • Compensate student-athletes for their service with academic and medical benefits. Athletes would receive multiyear scholarships that are guaranteed until graduation and cannot be canceled because of poor athletic performance or injury. These students would receive free medical insurance. An academic trust fund would afford athletes the opportunity to pursue a post-graduate degree or, in the case of dropouts, return to college.
  • Permit athletes to engage in commercial activities such as sponsorships in a sport other than the one they play in college. Had such a provision been in place earlier, multisport athlete Jeremy Bloom would not have been ruled ineligible to play football for the University of Colorado after accepting endorsement money as a professional skier. Athletes could engage in commercial activities as long as their college sport or institution is not identified. Other students already enjoy the right to make money for activities in which they excel, such as acting, singing, or creating technologies; so should college athletes, whose scholarships do not cover the full cost of earning a degree.

Potential sponsors and supporters in Congress are reviewing TDG's CAP Act with the goal of introducing a bill during the 2014 legislative session. The bill provides an intercollegiate athletics structure that maintains the primacy of the academic mission while affording athletes the basic rights that other college students enjoy. The time for intercollegiate athletics to evolve is past due, and the future guarantees one thing: Whether by court order, public pressure, or congressional mandate, change is finally coming.

About the Author B. David Ridpath

B. David Ridpath is an associate professor and the Kahandas Nandola Professor of Sports Administration in the College of Business at Ohio University and the president-elect of The Drake Group. Founded in 1999, at Drake University in Iowa, TDG is now based at the University of New Haven in Connectiut.




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