College sports in America are broken.
Consider the recent events at the University of Missouri. As most people know by now, president resigned after protests from students over his administration’s handling of racial incidents on campus. The key event in his ouster was the decision of Missouri’s football players to join the protest and their threat to boycott Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University. It wasn’t their moral authority that forced the issue but their financial clout: A forfeit would have cost Missouri $1 million. Whatever you think about the Tim Wolfe’s resignation, he wasn’t brought down by the cause of racial justice.
Further evidence of the disconnect between college sports and the universities they are purportedly part of:
* Texas A&M spent $485 million to expand its football stadium to seat 102,733, according to the New York Times. The renovation was funded in part by boosters who collectively paid $125 million for the rights to rent 12 luxury suites for seven or eight home games a year.
* The University of Louisville is reeling from accusations that an assistant coach used prostitutes to recruit high school students to its men’s basketball team. “I knew they weren’t college girls,” one recruit told ESPN.
* Thousands of athletes, along with other students, at the University of North Carolina, took part in an 18-year academic fraud that allowed them to receive grades without attending class or complete course work. The scandal led to the resignation of Chancellor Holden Thorp, while Roy Williams, men’s basketball coach since 2003, received a contract extension through 2020.
All of this is further proof, if any was needed, of the influence and power college sports has over universities, and the perverse relationship between academics and athletics at its core. From criminals recruited to campus, local police turning a blind eye to athlete misdeeds, college exams that ask how many halves are in a basketball game and $100 million coaches, universities are beholden to the prestige and money of big-time sports. The tail is not wagging the dog; it’s killing it.
Fortunately, I have a solution. It’s radical, and radically simple. It preserves much of what there is to like about college sports – the pageantry, the traditions, the intense competition – while eliminating much of what is rotten.
Football and men’s basketball become professional franchises owned by the university, and the athletes become its employees.
Teams would continue to play in the facilities on college campuses, wear the same uniforms and school colors. Athletes would draw wages and be eligible for the same tuition benefits as other employees. Some will pursue degrees and others won’t. They can take jobs in the off season, and earn money in whatever legal way they see fit. The NCAA would no longer have jurisdiction over those sports; there would be no need for recruiting rules or for minimum academic standards. Misbehavior would be dealt with by law enforcement, not coaches.
Not all athletic departments could afford to pay their athletes wages. This plan would probably be limited to the “Power Five” football conferences and their basketball equivalents. Those that couldn’t pay would opt out, and step their programs down to FCS (Division I-AA). Since most athletic programs run at a deficit, that’s where they belong, anyway.
Athletes could unionize, a movement that’s already begun at Northwestern, and universities could sign collective bargaining agreements putting in place mechanisms like salary caps and drafts to maintain competitive parity.
Other sports would remain under the current system, although ideally athletic scholarships would be eliminated and replaced with four-year grants based on financial need. Eventually, other revenue-generating sports – women’s basketball, hockey etc. – might choose to professionalize.
Owning what would essentially be minor-league franchises would be a departure for universities, but it’s not unusual for colleges to run profit-oriented businesses. Dartmouth College owns a hotel, Stanford owns a driving range and North Carolina has formed a joint venture with a pharma company to develop an AIDS cure.
By making that change, much of what is odious about college sports disappears. It’s not perfect, but it addresses the four main points any solution must:
1, It keeps the money flowing. Any realistic proposal has to accept the world as it is; the calendar can’t be turned back to 1940, when the University of Chicago dropped football to pursue a purer course. The massive revenue streams – universities share $11 billion from selling the right to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament – will be preserved because the product would be the same.
2, It compensates athletes for their labor. One of college sports’ biggest injustices is the financial exploitation of the athletes, who earn millions for their institutions and receive scholarships in lieu of pay. As Taylor Branch puts it, saying scholarships are fair compensation is “like saying that any worker who gets medical coverage doesn’t need or deserve a salary.” Athletes should be able to freely negotiate the terms of their employment, a fundamental right of workers everywhere.
3, It doesn’t force everyone to be a student. Not everyone belongs in college, but, because of collusion with the NFL and NBA, the system forces anyone interested in a career in basketball or football into university courses. Many athletes have no interest in academics, and are ill prepared by their high schools for college work. To maintain their eligibility, universities funnel them into the easiest courses and invest million in tutors and study centers, yet subject “student-athletes” to punishing travel and training schedules.
4, Most importantly, it severs the athletic enterprise from the university, and eliminates the need for the pretense that football is just another extra-curricular activity, like the glee club. When a football player spends four years at Oklahoma State without knowing how to read, it damages everyone associated with the school. When Rutgers shrinks it doctoral programs, yet pumps $27 million into sports, it tells faculty and students what’s important. Big-time sports are incompatible with the mission of a university, and it’s presence weakens the institutions, financially, pedagogically and morally.
I covered both college sports and higher education for years, so I think my reasoning is sound, but I wanted someone to check my math and I ran my plan past an expert on higher education. One flaw he identified is that gifts from boosters to athletics would no longer be tax-deductible, which could dry up a major source of income. Boosters could still, of course, contribute to the rest of the university, and it’s not clear that donating to build a university-owned stadium would run afoul of the IRS. It’s also not clear that athletics programs would need to spend as lavishly on facilities to woo recruits when they could attract them with better pay.
The professor’s other critique was that he couldn’t see universities giving up on the fantasy of the student-athlete; that professionalizing colleges sports would be admitting the hypocrisy inherent in the system. He may be right, and in the short term, this proposal is more of a thought experiment than an action plan. But the current path is unsustainable, and it may be courts or lawmakers that force a solution on universities if they fail to adopt one themselves.