How To Restore Integrity to College Sports

By Perry A. Zirkel | Chronicle of Higher Ed | June 17, 2015


Later this month, the National Basketball Association will hold its annual draft, which will be televised nationally on ESPN. Seven members of this year’s University of Kentucky team have declared themselves eligible for the draft, and Duke, which won the national championship, is expecting three of its freshmen to be one and done.

It is beyond dispute that college football and men’s basketball have become big business, with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, television, sports-apparel companies, gambling enterprises, and a rotating set of well-paid coaches and commentators at its center. It is also indisputable that, at some colleges, the term “student athlete” is a myth.

It is high time to do something about the hypocrisy and abuses at the moneyed tip of big-time college sports. Big-time Division I institutions dominate the national stage, competing for bigger slices of the ever-fattening financial pie. The big five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — collected a combined $311 million last year just from bowl games and NCAA tournament payouts.

Those conferences have muscled their way into obtaining a separate set of rules that has allowed them to pay players a so-called full cost of attendance. The problem, however, is that the colleges cloak these measures under the increasingly corrupting guise of the student athlete. Yes, colleges trickle down a subsidy from their huge profits to smaller sports, but there is a far more preferable way to improve equity and integrity among institutions of higher education in terms of athletic and academic opportunity.

I propose a surgical separation that retains a more limited connection between big-time sports and students’ higher education that preserves each on a mutually healthier basis. The starting point for this model comes from baseball. Feeding major-league baseball are minor leagues at various levels. Minor-league teams are for-profit businesses with employees that play and manage and are entirely separate from college baseball.

With baseball, a player can take one of two paths: Go directly from high school into the pros or play baseball as a student — with or without a scholarship — on a college team. Those who take the first path have the option of separately attending college but without eligibility for the institution’s team. Conversely, those who take the college path do not lose the opportunity of subsequently getting into the minor or major leagues after graduation.

This model would be adjusted for basketball and football by creating a new minor league at the big-time institutions. These minor-league teams would retain the name of the college at the price of a subsidy to the institution. In this separated state, the free market would dictate, including health insurance and possible unionization. With feeder ties to the National Football League and the NBA, these businesses would follow the rules of the marketplace with regard to players’ and coaches’ salaries and would reap the rewards of the College Football Playoff, big bowl games, and March Madness.

Under this model, some misconduct like academic fraud and recruiting violations would persist, as would the risk of career-ending injuries for unpaid players. But these problems would continue at a lower level due to adult accountability beyond the cocoon of higher education. Extended playoffs, without regard to the restraints of the academic schedule and mission, would simply be subject to the market mechanism of competition for customers.

Each Division I institution would have to choose between this pro model and the present arrangement at colleges without big-time sports programs. As a result, collegiate men’s and women’s sports would then be limited to true student-athletes, with more emphasis on admissions criteria, graduation rates, and study-friendly scheduling. College presidents would (gasp!) earn more than coaches, and they would be expected to provide more effective leadership via a reconstituted NCAA.

The relationship with, including subsidy to, the institutions and other operational issues for an effective transition would require careful planning and execution. And of course the NCAA would need to lessen its grip, and its profit, by being a true steward of student athletics. This has already begun. The special status of the big, power conferences provides a major head start for the overall framework. We’re halfway there, but the present situation merely magnifies the pernicious problems of exploitation, cheating, nongraduation, and fictional treatment of employees as students.

These issues pale in comparison to the profit-sharing prescription of the media that inevitably is interested in athletics, not academics. There will be less money for supporting other sports, including Title IX compliance, but — like the current national political problem of deciding which governmental activities to cut within the new notion of a balanced budget — the conversation moves to a different level in terms of long-term integrity and reason.

The fiscal pie would be smaller, but the allocation could nevertheless be equitable among the various slices. And in place of the fatty dough, we can still provide high participation by achieving a better balance between academic and athletic expectations.

A college’s assets for revenue generation after the spinoff would include not only the team’s established reputation and organization but also the stadium and related facilities. Universities already contract out their bookstores to commercial chains, serving as one illustration of how revenue streams can remain even while leaving business to the private sector. The paramount principle is keeping students and their education at the forefront — not using them for profit while education remains secondary.

After the transition, colleges could amply illustrate that for football and men’s basketball, as for other varsity sports, “student-athlete” puts the priority where it belongs. Being students first, the participants would be expected to meet challenging admissions standards and complete the same majors as other students.

It’s time for us to do more than just abhor the abuses and punish the few. Separating education from the business of sports is key to stopping the corruption and the exploitation of vulnerable youths. If this hybrid solution sacrifices too much, it simply shows that we really are not serious about finding a real and lasting solution.

Perry A. Zirkel is a university professor of education and law at Lehigh University.

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