Guest Blog. Real Reform in College Sports

As regular followers of know, our interest sometimes extends to matters beyond the world of politics. One such matter is the current state of top-level college athletics, recently a subject of increasing controversy. We invited a guest blog from an old friend, Roger M. Williams, who has closely followed college athletics while pursuing his long career as journalist, author and editor. He responded with an essay that we think you will find both interesting and thought- provoking.

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Real Reform in College Sports

By Roger M. Williams

It’s a contentious time in “Bigtime” college sports, with the spotlight at last shining steadily on a hypocritical and broken system. Never before has the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which controls the system, been under such pressure to reform.

Reform to what end? As proposed under pressure by the NCAA itself, one so-called reform would give athletic elite, the NCAA’s  five most powerful conferences  the power to run their own sports programs, setting their own budgetary, recruiting, and similar rules. That autonomy is likely to give players some greater access to the “honey pot” of TV revenue, but how much, and in what form, is not yet clear.The catchiest of the proposed changes, bitterly opposed by the NCAA, would permit jocks to establish unions that could bargain over wages and hours, medical care, the size of perks and scholarships, and other benefits that established unions for non-jocks have traditionally had.

Just as portentous as those events is the decision in the O’Bannon case, in which a federal district judge in California ruled that universities with top-level football and basketball programs may not deny compensation to their players for the use of their images in TV broadcasts and videogames. Although that seems only just, the O’Bannon decision will have much larger ramifications. It promises to unmask the notion of the “student athlete” as applied by most Division I institutions.

And good riddance that will be. For decades now in “D-One,” student athlete has been perhaps the emptiest term in American society, emptier even than the food peddlers’ “all natural” and “old fashioned.”The proposed reforms are certainly novel, and they create the impression of momentous and well-considered change. But they would make top-level college sports more professional, not less, and none of the changes would get at the heart of the problems and distortions inherent in the Bigtime programs.

At the heart of those is the ever-strengthening rule of money. As a pal of mine, a basketball player for the University of Maryland in more innocent days, puts it whenever the Bigtime makes a significant move, “Follow the money–that’s what’s driving everything these days.” He cites, as only one example, the recent frenzy of conference jumping, which has shattered longtime intra-conference rivalries. For example, his own alma mater and Rutgers leaped from the Atlantic Coast and American Athletic conferences, respectively, to the Big Ten. In so doing, those universities trampled on decades of tradition and keen rivalries in a rush to share the profits from huge, packed stadiums and lucrative TV deals.

Am I tarring Division I with too broad a brush? Only a bit. A relative handful of D-One schools, such as those in the Ivy League (designated IAA), do not prostrate themselves on the altar of sports. But even among them, there is what might be called prostration creep, especially in recruiting athletes who, say, ten years ago would not have gained admittance. The creep has also found its way to Divisions II and III, including a number of the academically highest ranked schools in the country.

To the primacy of money in an academic world supposedly shielded from it, add these splendid creations of the Bigtime:

  • The constant assault of sports on education, which we used to assume was the purpose of all universities.
  • Mutual and blatant exploitation of both sides in the Bigtime equation—jocks and college administrators.

Why blame the jocks? Because sizable numbers of them enroll in Bigtime schools for the clear purpose of prepping for the National Football League and National Basketball Association, rather than to get an education. And if they like their chances for “making” either one, they have no qualms about ditching the school and the education it has offered. (In the past couple of years, an avalanche of basketball players at the University of Kentucky, a longtime basketball factory, declared their eligibility for the NBA draft before their senior year. In one of those years, the number included five freshmen.) The sports world, including the media, treats this dissing of higher education as cause for near-celebration, eagerly anticipating who’ll turn pro and who’ll return to school—to strengthen their credentials for an NBA bid the following year.

Blame the jocks, too, for the woeful graduation rates of football and basketball squads at many Bigtime institutions—as clear an indication as one could want of where player priorities lie. Although the NCAA says the rates are increasing, many still hover around 50 percent; and as a rule of thumb, the better a school’s teams, the lower the rate. (Notre Dame and Stanford are outstanding exceptions.)

  • “Boosters”—many of them alumni, others just local zealots–who corrupt the Bigtime system by slipping money and goodies to their favorite players while pressuring presidents and boards to fire coaches who don’t win often enough. The characteristic common to boosters: they regard “their” school as principally a sports team—and it damn well better be a winning one.
  • Spineless presidents and boards who ignore Bigtime excesses to maximize TV revenue and to avoid confrontation with boosters, rabid alumni, and—when appropriations time comes around– state legislators.
  • Coaching staffs as large, and probably damned near as expensive, as those of professional teams. Head football and basketball coaches are elevated to godlike status–think Albama’s sainted Bear Bryant and Penn State’s fallen idol, Joe Paterno–with financial remuneration many times higher than that of their school’s president. But coaches who are less than godlike work under a win-or else ethic that will cost them their job if they don’t win more than they lose, snare a bowl bid, or—maybe and–consistently defeat Rival U.
  • Football players obliged to practice, or at least think about, their sport virtually all year long. Remember spring practice? Now there’s summer practice, too, a long stretch leading right up to the first game. Administrators and coaches, focused on a winning season and a bowl bid, ignore the quaint idea that college should provide something other than an overwhelming sports experience, the notion, that is, that young men might profit by doing something else for a while. Given the Bigtime football schedule, they can’t even participate in one of the most honored of college experiences, working at a summer job.
  • All athletes, men and women, who, far from being part of their campus communities (a presumed benefit of a college education), live there in varying degrees of isolation, with their own dorms or apartments, dining areas and menus, tutors, and, inevitably, social circle. If they’re not playing or practicing, they’re likely to be grinding it out in the weight room.

If I were the czar of college sports, here’s what I’d do. First and foremost, I would abolish athletic scholarships. What?! you say. Deprive all those athletes—mostly minority and low income—of the opportunity to attend college, to better their chances for a good, productive life, etc., etc.? Not at all: only deprive them of that route into college. If they can get there on their academic performance, either straight out of high school or via a community college, welcome them. Otherwise, give those places in entering classes to students who don’t look at higher education as a springboard into pro sports or even as a playground for their college versions.

Oblige those who do look at it one of those two ways to compete for a spot in a professional minor league in their sport; or, in the case of basketball, try to hook on in Europe, which has become a feeder system for the NBA. Basketball has a loosely organized assortment of minor league teams, but the pipeline it provides to the NBA seems constricted. Baseball has long had an elaborate minor league network that has served as a feeder system for the major leagues; it still does, although many players now get as good a start in college; in either case, there’s an orderly procession to the top (and often back down).

The conspicuous laggard here is football. To my knowledge, it has never had even a rudimentary minor league, and it certainly doesn’t now. For its new blood, the NFL depends overwhelmingly on Division I rosters. From its standpoint, why not? Every year, thousands of good-to-very-good prospects pour out of Bigtime schools, a hefty percentage of them thirsting to be drafted by an NFL team. All the pro clubs have to do is sit and wait, test the prospects, take the ones they want, send the rest packing, and go on with their business. Is there another major enterprise in the United States that acquires its raw material so cheaply?

Except for TV revenue and a bit of parochial pride (‘Hey, the Jets’ starting right guard played for us!’), the institutions producing that material get damned little out of the transaction. The colleges, Bigtime included, should say to the NFL: Enough! Set up and underwrite your own incubator for players; we have better things to do.

And you jocks: you want a career as a pro athlete? Great. That’s become a lucrative and esteemed occupation. But don’t take up space in our college classrooms while you’re trying to get there. I can hear the bleats from readers of this screed. What will alumni say—and do, regarding donations to State U? How about state legislators—regarding appropriations to the U? How about the rivalries with this school or that one?

The last of those questions is easy to answer. The rivalries would continue—with players drawn from the ranks of the students who come to school primarily to study. And the game will still be football (or basketball). Division III provides an instructive example. A 70-yard touchdown run or a game-winning three-pointer by, say, a player at Bowdoin College is inherently just as satisfying as the same feat by a fanatically recruited, NFL/NBA-bound superjock at Alabama.

The booster issue should also be easy to handle. Often a bunch of aging wannabe jocks with a taste for living vicariously through college sports—another friend of mine half-jokingly pegs them as owners of used-car dealerships— boosters should not be a part of those sports except as purchasers of tickets to the games. The NCAA chases boosters time to time, and in NCAA fashion utters stern tut-tuts and administers wrist slaps. But one gets the feeling that it’s a half-hearted chase; after all, they’ve become an accepted and important part of the Bigtime scene. Forbid boosters, at least under penalty of forfeiting those tickets forever, from giving anything of value to the athletic department, its coaches, or any of the players it oversees.

Shaping up presidents and board members is much more difficult, because you can’t forbid them from doing this or that. Although in many ways both groups hold the keys to reform, they have all too often become captives of the prevailing system. The presidents, at least, know the system stinks—they are, after all, educators—but they feel powerless to change or challenge it. They face very strong pressures for their schools’ teams to win and keep on winning: to placate the victory-oriented constituencies I’ve mentioned above; to fill stadiums, schedule high-profile opponents; attract juicy TV deals.

I have no magic solution for changing the attitudes and the performance of these top administrators. I’m convinced, however, that the boards are critical. It’s their job to identify candidates for the presidency who have both the principles and the backbone to reject a Bigtime sports program. One can’t be optimistic that even a pro-reform board would “do the right thing;” if they did at state universities, legislators would doubtless find a way to nullify their action and return sports to their proper, sanctified place.

But let’s dream a bit. A single Bigtime-school president, supported by enough board members, could strike an important blow for sanity by taking some steps to subvert the system. The main one, as I’ve said, is to abolish athletic scholarships. All applicants for admission would be required to meet the same academic standards—no special breaks because you’re hot stuff in one sport or another.

Well, recognizing reality, not many breaks. Nowadays, when candidates have comparable scores, admissions officers like to give preference to one who has an unusual talent—in, say, music or writing or scientific innovation—and the prospect of developing it much further. I’ve heard it argued that athletic prowess should be considered as one of those talents, tipping the admission scale in an athlete’s favor. The argument has some merit, but it leads to a very slippery slope: for one thing, an academic institution should not rate ability in sports anywhere near as highly as ability in the arts or in science; for another, there’s no danger of a school admitting too many violinists or poets; but as history demonstrates, there’s plenty of danger—all the way down through Division III—of their letting in too many jocks.

Implementing an admissions system that didn’t give too many breaks to athletes would depend on the good will and rectitude of “reformed” university officials. Although not simple in any case, it would be far easier under a “de-emphasized” sports system in which the officials weren’t being badgered to win every game in sight. And there’d be nothing wrong with schools in the same conference appointing a small committee to monitor admission practices as they related to sports.

Scholarships aside, the president and board could reduce the size of coaching staffs by one half to two-thirds and cut theirs salaries drastically (freeing up tens of thousands of dollars a year for academic scholarships); do away with training tables,segregated dorms, tutors, and all other trappings that set athletes apart from the student body; restrict today’s hyped-up and expensive recruiting of high schoolers to, say, a couple of letters and a single phone call expressing the school’s interest. Those changes would spare a reform-minded university a lot of NFL- and NBA-seeking applicants, as well as high-priced coaches, simply because they want schools that have all those perks.

What else? Eliminate a big chunk of football’s off-season practice time, so that students could be students as well as young men pursuing other interests that are now virtually closed to them. Oblige jocks to live among and eat with their fellow students, and give them only the amount of tutoring available to non-athletes; if they choose to spend their all free time together, so be it; at least you won’t have institutionalized sports-vs.-non-sports segregation.

What will a president and supporting board members do when cries of outrage arise? When alumni donations decline? When traditional-rival schools threaten to drop Reform U. from their schedules? Stand their ground. Remind the my-team-equals-my-school types of why a university exists. Tell the rival schools who continue on the Bigtime path: ‘We’ll be scheduling games against smaller schools that share our philosophy, and in time we’ll create rivalries just as rich and compelling as those we’ve had with you.’

Here’s something else to tell the Bigtimers, something they probably already know but choose to ignore. Among Western democracies, the United States is almost certainly the only one whose universities routinely house near-professional sports enterprises. In Europe, for example, students who want to engage in sports are directed by the university to clubs, often off campus, and the athletic scholarship barely exists. In Great Britain, possibly to revive its flagging performance in international competition, some universities have, for a couple of decades now, been awarding athletic scholarships; but the numbers pale alongside those given on our side of the Atlantic.

And here’s something that could be done by the NCAA bureaucracy (or “booboisee,” as H.L. Mencken put it). Instead of slapping the wrist of a player for accepting a free pizza or some such, the NCAA address a core problem and tell the professional leagues that henceforth they will be forbidden to sign or even draft college athletes who have not spent at least four years in college—maybe (can you imagine this?) who have not earned a degree.A school whose money-hungry athletes ignored those rules would face stiff sanctions from its own conference and a reformed NCAA. If the courts let those restrictions stand, they would in themselves represent a major step toward redressing the balance between athletics and education.

Will any of the reforms I have prescribed take root? Not in the foreseeable future. The large institutions in American higher education are mired in the Bigtime cycle of sports worship, warped educational values, and pursuit of the dollar, and the NCAA as constituted is worse than useless as a tool for freeing them from that. In fact, it is deeply complicit in sustaining the system. But that’s no reason for the rest of us not to acknowledge the curse of the Bigtime and, when we see openings, do whatever we can to counter it. We owe at least that to our nation’s higher-education enterprise.

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4 thoughts on “Guest Blog. Real Reform in College Sports

  • A noble goal, Roger, but actually not a new one. College sports, especially football, has generated passionate debate from the early formative years. Dave Revsine’s new book “The Opening Kickoff”, recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, takes us back to the early days. Here is an excerpt from Kirkus Reviews: “Reading the author’s heavily researched tale of the history of college football—specifically, the period between 1890 and 1915—is like watching an old-fashioned, dramatic movie newsreel…. [I]t is a vivid examination of the sport’s infancy…. Revsine’s descriptions of momentous games and quotes from published accounts give the narrative a storybook feel. He examines how numerous issues and ethical questions during the sport’s early years are still debated today…. An interesting demonstration of how athletics remains today what it was well over 100 years ago: big business.”

    It is big business and looks to become even bigger business.

  • I do agree with Roger and a minority we will remain. I sometimes wish my alma mater had a better football team but I don’t go beyond low level wishing. One thing I’m proud of is that three of my college mates, who played football, were Phi Beta Kappa. Ciao, Tom

  • Isn’t it a severe indictment on colleges and universities when the level of alumni giving is dependent on winning? Take SMU for example. The level of giving went through the roof years ago when Ron Meyer went out and bought a football team. Bare bones affirmation folks!
    Since this seems to be a sticky wicket for all you jocks, I have a simple suggestion. Quietly outsource your football program to Vinnie, Vito, Carmine, Mario and Tony, all formally related to the Gambino and Corleone families in New York and New Jersey.
    Problem solved!

  • As a long-time fan of college sports, to the point of having a minor addiction to following Saturday college football games, I have to heartily agree with the analysis and recommendations offered by Williams, even while doubting they will ever be adopted and recognizing that, if they ever were, college sports would be very different than they are today. I lament that student-athletes are rare in college sports today, unlike 70 years ago when I became a fan, and that a college’s only real option now if they don’t want to participate in the rat race of athletic competition is to drop competing in the major sports altogether. One can’t blame the NCAA too much, however, for the changes. Aren’t the changes reflective of major societal changes affecting competitiveness, finances, greed, and impatience that have occurred during the past half-century in our culture at large?

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