What to Do About Big-Money College Sports?

Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA, is a man with a mission. A
series of unprecedented scandals has eroded confidence in big-time college
sports. In fact, some critics contend the NCAA is an enabler that is
compromised by the billions of dollars colleges earn through football and
basketball programs. Mr. Emmert is intent on changing that perception.

Some contend that the so-called student-athlete should be paid
and, at the very least, have called for “extra money” for athletes. Others
argue that those who violate recruitment regulations and the maintenance of
minimal academic standards should be prohibited from Bowl games and March
Madness tournament participation. With 338 Division I members, whose budgets
range from $5 million to $155 million consensus is not easily achieved. And
some, Joe Nocera of the New York Times for example, contend that “Many NCAA
infractions consist of actions that most people would consider perfectly appropriate
– and entirely legal – but that the NCAA has chosen to criminalize.”

Perhaps nowhere are those tensions unfolding more than in
football, where six power conferences, rather than the NCAA, control the purse
strings. As much as Mr. Emmert argues for change, he is powerless to effectuate
the Bowl Championship Series debate dominated by the key conferences. He may
raise the appropriate questions, but cannot influence the answers.

The most serious question, of course, involves the low and, in
some instances, nonexistent graduation rate of athletes from Division I
football and basketball programs. It is evident to anyone following big-time
college sports that athletes are rarely students; they are rented semi-pros
there to bring glory and revenue to alma mater. Whether they graduate is
usually not an issue for the coach. His first and overarching responsibility is
producing a winning team. And he is in many instances paid more than the
university president; his tenure is based entirely on wins.

As I see it, Emmert wants to move the NCAA from its somnolent
status to active enforcer. This isn’t easy when in the recent past the NCAA had
leaders incapable of making decisions and chose to evade their gaze when
embarrassing moments became visible. The lure of television rights and revenue
seemingly trump all other considerations.

The national championship game between LSU and Alabama had more
than a billion dollars attached to it in seat sales, television revenue, hotel
rooms, transportation, etc. This is not some small financial activity to be
reviewed by the Better Business Bureau. It is big business that allows the
turbines of higher education to keep turning. The game also raised interesting
questions about the commitment of the players to their studies. Phil Mushnick
of the New York Post asked “Among the 44 student athletes who started in
Monday’s LSU-Alabama title game, how many reported or will report for the first
week of the new semester?”

However, Mr. Emmert is smart enough and impatient enough to know
that in the present set of circumstances the words student-athlete are an
oxymoron. Notwithstanding several noteworthy exceptions, most Divisions I
football players are athletes who never saw a classroom or wrote a research
paper on their own. Joe Nocera, who has adopted the position of defender of the
college athlete, is more concerned with eligibility questions and arbitrary
NCAA rulings than the academic side of the student athlete.

For many in the alumni, it may not make a difference. They simply
want to see the home team win. But there is little doubt this travesty is
having an effect on a public that realizes the amateur tradition is dead or on
life support.

Mr. Emmert apparently realizes it as well which explains, in part,
why he is calling for reforms, however modest they may be. It will be
interesting to see what strides he may make with resistance from the major
conferences. It is hard to be an idealist, even a guarded idealist, when you
are putting billions of dollars at risk. College football and basketball are
big businesses and, as a consequence, remain unlikely clients for a return to
the pure love of sport.

It is appropriate to ask how the NCAA can define amateurism as
allowing a $2000 stipend and then forbidding any additional funding. Or as Joe
Nocera puts it, “How can the labor force that generates so much money for
everyone else be kept in shackles by the NCAA?” This is the question Mr. Emmert
is trying very hard to address.

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