Why the NCAA Continues to Work Against Athletes’ Best Interests

By Gerald S. Gurney and B. David Ridpath | in Chronicle of Higher Ed


The NCAA slipped an important announcement by the public last month when the Board of Governors, consisting of 20 college chancellors and presidents, approved a contract extension until 2020 for the organization’s president, Mark Emmert. The board said Emmert had been an integral agent of change during a dramatic transformation of college athletics. Reasonable minds can disagree, but that statement does not fit the evidence of Emmert’s tenure thus far.

Dennis Dodd, of CBS Sports, offered a more critical assessment of the NCAA leadership under Emmert’s watch. Dodd highlighted numerous missteps, including the bungling of the infractions cases at the University of Southern California and the University of Miami, and the preposterous overreach in the Penn State criminal case in which the NCAA recently withdrew almost all of its unwarranted sanctions, making Penn State a Waterloo moment for Emmert and the association. Issues of lack of due process afforded to athletes, coaches, and administrators continue to threaten careers and reputations.

Even a perfect performance by Emmert that satisfied everyone would not be enough to overcome a flawed NCAA governance structure that has led to an era of public discontentment and ridicule. The NCAA leadership has done little to advance the educational experience of student athletes, which Emmert has touted as an accomplishment of his term. Time demands for athletes continue to increase with mandatory in-season and off-season activities that take needed time from academic and social pursuits.

Emmert and others always respond with “concern” over issues like these, but offer no concrete efforts to change the culture of football and men’s basketball. Pressure on faculty and administrators to keep athletes eligible has become all too commonplace, along with “clustering” athletesin certain majors, as well as admitting underprepared athletes and then allowing them to compete without adequate academic remediation. The NCAA has reported an epidemic of academic fraud cases.

Beyond that, the NCAA still asserts that it has no legal obligation toprotect the health and well-being of student athletes or to ensure thequality of their education. Lawsuits abound challenging many of the NCAA’s core principles of amateurism, health, and the quality of athletes’ educational experiences.

The organization is facing a serious crisis of confidence: College presidents, particularly those representing the wealthiest institutions in the “Power 5” conferences, are intent upon securing the largest shares of revenue for their own institutions to the detriment of other institutions and students in general. In the last five years, universities have pumpedmore than $10.3 billion into athletics from student fees and other subsidies, increasing student fees by 10 percent at a time when student debt is skyrocketing. Emmert and the NCAA leadership stand largely silent on crucial issues such as these and offer no suggestions for improvement.

But as we have said, whether or not Emmert may be able to steer the NCAA through these turbulent times, the organization’s governance should be radically restructured to resemble the common practices of other nonprofit institutions that enjoy tax-exempt status. Most of those have independent governing boards to provide oversight. That is not true of the NCAA’s board, which is made up of people, including sitting presidents, with a vested interest in the organization’s decisions.

Ironically, in a 2009 survey by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, college presidents overwhelmingly expressed an inability to control their own athletic programs because of enormous pressure from their governing boards, boosters, and celebrity coaches. Often, a president’s representation of his or her institution in athletic matters amounts to little more than asserting the interests of the coaches and athletic directors.

A nimble, effective nonprofit corporation must depend on experienced, independent directors able to govern without being compromised; however, it is difficult to justify the NCAA’s tax-exempt status when vast sums of revenue are siphoned off by coaches and athletic administrations. Instead, the NCAA must develop a governance model that is free from those with vested interests, including presidents.

The current management structure is made up of those presidents, athletic directors, and conference representatives who approach college sports as a trade association to forward the best interests of athletic administrators and coaches; the athletes are mere tools of athletic capital to achieve those ends. This cannot continue if big-time college sports is to retain any relationship to higher education or the education of its participants in football and men’s basketball.

An independent board, composed of vetted and distinguished former college presidents who are not beholden to trustees and boosters, independent faculty elected by institutions’ faculty senates rather than appointed by presidents, and a significantly larger share of former athletes would offer a more balanced and hopeful prospect for the future of college sports governance and its part in a larger educational mission. Such a radical transformation of the NCAA would be a heartening change from a management more focused on achieving the goals of TV networks and conference commissioners than on the educational and social advancement of the athletes who provide billions in revenue and exposure.

Gerald S. Gurney is an assistant professor in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma. B. David Ridpath is an associate professor of sports administration in the College of Business at Ohio University.

[Photo: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here