College Sports: Revising the Playbook

William Casement

The big-time approach to college sports demands an overhaul—for the good of the athletes, the bottom line, and the intellectual atmosphere on campus. But defenders of the system argue for the entertainment value provided to students and the school spirit and publicity that go with it, along with the chance for it to be a moneymaker even if it often is not. The academic and nonacademic purposes within higher education institutions bump up against one another for a result that is increasingly dysfunctional. There is, however, a way out that will give each side at least most of what it wants. One fundamental change is required, after which others fall into place. Versions of the system that results, although usually not as comprehensive as what’s being proposed here, have been suggested by some of the more thoughtful critics. Teams that operate on a big-time model will be declared professional. All other teams are amateur. This two-part structure replaces the present and more complicated NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) structure of Divisions IA, IAA, II, and III. Educational and noneducational interests are no longer tied together through nuancing—instead, they’re clearly demarcated and left to follow their natural paths.

A professional team is owned by an entity outside of the school bearing its name. A coalition of alumni boosters is an obvious choice for ownership, although it might be a local business or community group. Profits go to the ownership entity, but with an arrangement for the school to get a generous share. Losses are born by the ownership entity and not by the school. Teams are free to make connections with major league professional teams for part ownership or looser sponsorship agreements. Either way, the major league teams contribute to the player development that’s crucial for them and for which they have long expected the colleges to bear the costs.

Professional teams have no restrictions on how they make their money—through ticket sales, TV, selling team paraphernalia, selling signage on billboards and team uniforms. And they pay income tax on their profits. They might be eligible for tax breaks if they donate to the schools they represent, since those schools are nonprofit organizations.

Ownership of athletic facilities can vary, but a stadium or arena located away from campus, or even one on campus but used mostly by a professional team, should be owned by the team or by another outside entity.

Instead of athletic scholarships, players are paid salaries negotiated according to their skill levels and to market demands. They’re not required to be students at the school whose team they play for or at any other school. If they apply for admission to their team’s school, no preference will be given for their status as an athlete. Players might enroll at any school that meets their educational needs, and they will probably attend classes in the off-season or on a part-time basis during the season. Teams should counsel players about what schooling is best for them and make sure scheduling of classes fits into their work schedules. Amateur players on college teams will be welcome to try out for pro teams, understanding that if they make the team, their professional commitment would require curtailing their college studies.

All teams that are not professional are designated as amateur. In accordance with true amateurism, there are no athletic scholarships or other financial compensation given for being an athlete, and playing seasons and off-season practices are carefully limited. Preference given in admission to varsity athletes, a common occurrence today even at non-scholarship schools (the NCAA’s Division III), will be largely eliminated—used only in a general sense to ensure that a school’s student body isn’t shy on athletes and glutted with musicians, debaters, entrepreneurs, and technophiles. The point is to have students with proven skills of a certain kind who add to the extracurricular life of the campus. But athletes a college accepts for admission should fall within its academic profile of accepted students as a whole. If not, there will be an academic mismatch similar to what exists today in Division I and at some Division III schools as well. Highly selective colleges may balk at the admissions restrictions, worried they won’t be able to accept enough athletes, but they’ll still be able to trade on their prestige to draw academically talented ones. What they’ll give up are star players who are under-qualified. The admissions restriction must be written carefully into NCAA regulations, and enforced through regular reviews of colleges’ admissions office records.

Holding the line between amateur and professional is crucial. Otherwise the result will make a sham of reform by simply adding another layer of commercialism to what exists now. Teams that have tendencies beyond amateurism should join the professional ranks. Within the amateur system, schools that truly believe there is educational value in playing on a varsity team should be encouraged to field multiple teams in a given sport, according to student interest and the size of the student body.

The new system applies to all sports, not just the ones known today as revenue-producing, since all are subject to the problems of exploiting athletes and draining the budget, and in varying degrees to inspiring anti-intellectualism. Varsity athletes will use the same services as other students, with no special housing or special meals or special tutoring. Expenditures for athletics will be fully disclosed, under a uniform approach to accounting that is monitored by the NCAA.

The NCAA will abandon its commercial function. It’s likely the professional teams will want to form a collectivity, and units or individuals from the present NCAA might function well there, but it needs to be entirely separate from the organization that represents amateur sports. As the NCAA’s role ceases with profit-making concerns, its focus will be strictly on enforcing the rules of amateurism. There will be ample need for enforcement, as some schools and coaches accustomed to current practices could easily want to stretch varsity sports beyond the pattern that amateur teams are meant to follow.

The new system provides strong answers to two of the three main problems critics have rightfully decried about big-time college sports, and a partial answer to the third. Students will not be exploited by colleges for profit and publicity. Instead, professional athletes playing for school teams will be paid the large or small salaries they deserve, and they’ll be free to pursue whatever schooling is best for them, while varsity athletes will be afforded the time and energy to be serious students, and will attend schools where they’re a proper fit academically. Colleges will be spared the financial drain that teams built on a big-time model usually incur. While amateur teams will have to be financed, their costs are known to be much less than for the big-time teams of today. And the money spent will be for the true purpose of amateurism—providing an outlet for having fun and promoting extracurricular learning. As for the anti-intellectual effect of big-time sports on the student body, it will continue to exist but to a lesser degree. The noxious image of the athlete as an academically unqualified slacker will be removed, and some of the impetus for a “beer and circus” lifestyle will go with it. Students will be separated from professional athletes, but the athletes will still perform to entertain them and as a potential enticement for their devotion and distraction.

On the other hand, supporters of big-time sports will also find the new system to their benefit. Professional teams will be potential moneymakers for the schools they represent, yet without the schools risking a loss of money. From an investment point of view, that arrangement is hard to resist. Students will continue to enjoy spectator sports as they do now and continue to have teams to rally around. Sports-minded alumni can still look fondly upon their pride and joy, and their school will benefit from the publicity coming from the professional teams bearing its name. Coaches for the professional teams will be free from the boondoggle of amateur rules they’re now expected to follow and from the pretense that their rosters are filled with serious full-time students. Boosters will be free to give large sums of money to their professional teams without being censured for buying favor in the realm of higher education. They’ll have direct control over their teams through ownership and not have to worry about conflicting with the agendas of college administrators.

Who might not welcome the new system? Some sports purists may be offended—those who maintain that an athletic team bearing a college’s name should be made up only of full-time students attending that school. But is this sentiment enough to oppose direly needed reform? Faculty who have been strong opponents of big-time teams may believe too little will be done in response to sports-inspired anti-intellectualism on campus. If so, will this frustration bring about a willingness to fight for a stronger measure such as reducing big-time teams to an amateur level? How strenuously will people with this perspective want to push against a means of reform that accomplishes a fair share of what they would like to see happen?

Another likely source of opposition is parties who are afraid they’ll lose standing personally. Some present Division I coaches might fear for their jobs or a salary reduction if their teams took on new ownership. On the other hand, they’ll be free to negotiate their contracts without being resented for subverting the pay scale in academia. Division II coaches will be caught between moving to amateur status and full-fledged professional status, and may fear a move downward. Division III coaches may be unhappy if they’re in the habit of recruiting academically under-qualified players, since the new amateur system disallows it. The key to their success in the future is coaching the players who are a legitimate fit in the classroom rather than relying on talented athletes who are misfits there. Current non-revenue-producing teams playing at the Division I level might fear for financial backing in converting to professional status. Then again, they could welcome the opportunity to go out into the community and solicit sponsors.

NCAA employees are still another group who will be apprehensive about their future. The organization will be reduced by losing one of its two main functions, and for the one that remains—overseeing teams that are truly amateur—it will have to rely entirely on colleges for direct funding instead of the present arrangement that takes a cut from the revenue of big-time teams (primarily from the “March Madness” men’s basketball tournament). NCAA employees on the commercial side will be out of their jobs, but can hope to find other ones in the new professional enterprise.

Major league professional teams won’t like the idea that they may be asked to pay for developing the players that colleges, until now, have developed at their own expense. But why should higher education bear a burden that obviously belongs elsewhere? It’s quite reasonable to ask the major leagues to contribute to their own lifeblood and to welcome into the professional ranks teams that have been commercial enterprises in every way but their tax designation. The pitch is more difficult to nonprofit organizations, ones connected to sports like gymnastics, track and field, and swimming, which don’t hold the revenue potential of football and basketball. Some of these organizations are already involved with college sports—through coaching clinics, sharing venues, for example—but they have limited financial resources and could fear the dilemma of being pressured to share those resources or watch the demise of teams and decline of quality in their sports. Still, they should welcome the freedom of the newly defined professional teams to be openly commercial, and be willing to help in locating sponsors beyond themselves.

This overview of who can be expected to favor the new structure and who can be expected to oppose it is a telling sign that adopting that structure is the right course of action. People in an enterprise that is secondary to the primary purpose of higher education, and presently an obstruction to it, will sacrifice their own personal gain, while the primary purpose is strengthened for the many it’s properly meant to serve. The secondary enterprise would continue to exist in an independent form to serve its own purpose. Colleges need to be free to operate without the demands and enticements of high-functioning sports teams. The time is overdue for college officials to face up to this reality and to spin off a vastly overgrown encumbrance.

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