If You Can’t Turn a Profit, You Must be in Div. I College Sports

CollegeSportsIn December of 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education produced a series of articles entitled “What the Hell Has Happened to College Sports?” The publication gathered eight experts, a collection of former athletes, educators and sports writers, and asked them the title question about the state of major athletics in higher education and what they would suggest to fix the problems that currently stain the reputation of the NCAA and its members.

In his contribution “Bust the Amateur Myth,” Frank Deford, a sports journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated and other notable sports news outlets, contends that the amateur model is an “indefensible, antiquated system,” that cannot succeed. His solution is to end it and move towards a professional way of doing things that sees the players paid for their efforts.  C Thomas McMillen, a former college and professional basketball player who has also served in Congress and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, does not feel the ideals of the amateur system need to be abandoned so recklessly. In his piece, “Eliminate the Profit Motive,” McMillen admits the NCAA is facing a tough road, but sees the possibility of saving college athletics not by giving more money to the students, but by seeing less of it in the hands of a few powerful schools and individuals.

Deford states that college football and basketball players are the only premier athletes in the world “denied payment for their services in sports where significant sums of money are involved.” He points out that the inevitable corruption of a system wherein large sums of “money is mixed with forced pro-bono performing,” has been recognized by organizations across the world, from tennis to rugby to the Olympics. Nowhere else has it been condoned and allowed to survive. He points out that while the student athletes work for free, coaches are paid multi-million dollar contracts and scores of others, from journalists to apparel companies, make plenty of money off the work of these young adults.

The answer Deford puts forth is that “Athletic scholarships should be discontinued – except for football and basketball players who desire them.” All others he would see be hired and paid as employees, going to school only if they wish, thereby eliminating academic fraud in the system. He suggests that the whole process become run as a business and that all students should be able to compete with athletes of all other sports and the best would be rewarded with scholarships.

McMillen contends that the way to save the NCAA is for Congress to grant the governing body a monopoly, as it did the U.S. Olympic Committee, with the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, so that it would have the power to enforce it rules and regulations and to install “revenue sharing among all members of the NCAA in the collectivist model that has worked so well for the NFL, whereby a significant portion of the pooled revenue is shared among the 32 teams.” He points out that even without Deford’s idea of preventing money from flowing from the high revenue sports to the less valuable ones, many schools are having trouble keeping their athletic programs going because football and basketball cost the school so much money in the hopes of staying relevant. He points to his Alma Mater, the University of Maryland, as an example as “recently the university cut eight sports teams because the cash-devouring giants of basketball and football could not keep up with the escalating costs of intercollegiate athletics.”

CollegeFootball Deford is right, the economy built up around college football and basketball has become a multi-billion dollar industry, seeing profits raked in by the major conferences, coaches, assistant coaches, sneaker companies and equipment purveyors alike. But the students are not the only one’s missing out on the heady profits, many schools sit in the same circumstance as McMillan University of Maryland, according to Seth Davis, in his piece for Sports Illustrated, “Should College Athletes be Paid?,” less than a dozen of the 332 Div. I schools have athletic departments are making a profit and 88% of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision are losing money for their schools. Were the new model to be as Deford suggests, in which colleges that protest “they can’t afford to pay the performers … should abandon the business of sports,” there would not be many teams playing the in those tournaments and bowl games leaving the television audience much smaller, the money less awe inspiring and those seasons professional style leagues he’s pushing for pretty undesirable.

I completely disagree with Deford’s argument that athletic programs should be run like businesses. His view is so cynical that it completely ignores the point of what a school is. It is one thing to discuss compensation, it quite another to suggest that schools absolve themselves of their prime directive as an institution of learning to run minor league sports franchises. Turning scholarships and contracts into rewards for only the most talented student athlete would leave a school with a very uneven field. Many a school would find themselves with stocked with far more backup point guards than bowlers, golfers and starting punters. But at least that suggestion has an egalitarian factor in that it generally would be guided by merit, based on ability and hard work.

Deford’s statement, “there is no justification that football and basketball must pay the freight for other so-called ‘nonrevenue’ sports. If football makes the money, the money should go to those who fill up the stadiums and attract the television bounty,” is even more disturbing. So now these salaries and scholarship are to be determined not only by athletic ability, as compared to a large pool rather than those in one’s own specialty, but by their economic value.  Such policies would undermine all college sports, as mentioned, even most of the football and basketball programs would not end up supporting themselves, but even more athletes competing in sports that sell less tickets and draw less eyes would find themselves off the field and out an education. Putting such a focus on the two main Div. I sorts would leave many women without an opportunity to participate in any athletics and would fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s Title IX ruling. Such policies would destroy any pretense that schools were institutions of a higher purpose. Deford’s proposal is not so much a way of fixing the problems with fairness and corruption in the NCAA, but a way of giving up.

I like McMillen’s idea of profit sharing, not only should schools not view athletics as solely a money making opportunity, it should not need to be a money wasting endeavor either, programs giving up on Division I sports will hurt not only their own students but also Division I sports in general as the shrinking pool of teams will lead, as previously mentioned, to lower interest from a smaller pool of fans. One of the main reasons that profit sharing has worked for the NFL is that it keeps more teams spending money, attempting to keep competitive which keeps more fan bases engaged until late in the season. More teams able to afford to run their programs, combined with an NCAA with some teeth and real oversight, could lead to a more efficient, transparent and successful landscape.

There are many problems in college sports right now. There are under the table payments made to numerous players. Illicit benefits and no show jobs used to attract high profile children in the hopes of using them to bring glory to an institutions. There are head coaches and assistant coaches making from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year while the students who put in their dedication and physical health cannot afford to take a trip home to visit their family. In chasing the almighty dollars many of these schools have forgotten what is supposed to be their mission and focus more on getting a bowl bonus for their school and conference than on helping prepare young men for a life in the real world. However, taking away these children’s one chance at a higher education, and a path to a better life, is not the way to fix anything. There are a number of steps that must be taken, and it is a problem than demands attention from a number of directions, but the ideal of better mind in a better body are worth the effort.

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