The NCAA: Missing the Point of a Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy  Institute/EPI International

Many of my colleagues know that I am not a big fan of the NCAA. Of course, I am a hypocrite. When my alma maters make the March Madness (Old Dominion University and George Washington University), I climb on the bandwagon. As soon as they lose, I turn it off.

But the truth is that I have remained consistent in my criticism of the NCAA and inter-college athletics. I think there are serious problems with both the NCAA and our vision for The University. This is a distinctly American problem. Canadian institutions, for the most part, are far more academic driven than their US counterparts. I argue they are better. Better because they do what they are supposed to: teach.

Let us put a few foundational pieces on the table. First, I am an athlete. I played high-level sports when I was younger. Sure, I played on high school teams, but most of my team athletics were through local “clubs,” which were community based, not school based. I played both football and team handball on various club teams. As a football player, we won the Manitoba Provincial Championships three times straight, and I played on five consecutive Manitoba Junior Team Handball teams at the Canadian Nationals, following which I played (and captained) the senior men’s team at the nationals. Finally, I turned to coaching the Manitoba junior men’s team at the national level. I understand athletics.

Second, I believe that athletics is an important part of learning and also part of a “good” life. There is something about playing competitive sports that you learn about life. There is even more learned in team sports that quickly can be adapted to the corporate world. I attribute much of my networking and team building skills to my days playing and coaching teams. You can’t “buy” that level of learning.

So I do not disagree with providing athletics at the university level. I do not necessarily disagree with having an NCAA or similar organization coordinating all the activities, and, to a degree, providing rules and regulations not only for athletics, but also for the academic progress of athletes.

My major point is that college athletics has gotten out of hand. My argument is focused primarily on two sports: football and basketball, because they are the main culprits of poor and out-of-hand management. Other sports, such as hockey and baseball, are secondary, while lacrosse, volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling, and other smaller sports are non-issues, simply because those players graduate at much higher rates and are more academic focused than basketball and football. As well, this conversation is mostly about men. Women athletes are typically more academically focused than men. My argument also focuses on NCAA Division I, which houses the larger universities and the biggest athletic programs in the country.

The problem is simple: Division I athletics have become, for all intents and purposes, a farm league for the NBA and NFL. The stakes are incredibly high for many D-I programs, and also for its players. The top coaches get paid salaries commensurate with both the NBA and NFL, and tickets to NCAA games (even at D-II and D-III, the cost and pecking order can get high) often require “licenses,” an NCAA practice that made its way into the NFL.

But these high-level athletics are a lottery for many of the students. Only a handful will grab the proverbial brass ring and be drafted by the two super leagues. Of those, only a smaller number will actually make the team, and even more will play a year or two due to injury or performance.

College sports have become such a big money issue over the last two decades. The media contracts are enormous. Just last year, the NCAA signed a 14-year contract with CBS for D-I basketball championships—for $11 billion. And that is ONLY the championships, not the rest of the year. The TV broadcast rights for college football are doled out by conference. The Big Ten has a $242 million/year contract, and the top six conferences earn $683 million/year for broadcast rights. There are additional contracts for Bowl Games and even for single teams (such as NBC’s rights to the Notre Dame games).

Of coaches who made the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this spring, the lowest salary (reported) was $85,000. However, that is an anomaly. Louisville’s Rick Pitino earned $7.5 million last year; Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski earned $4.2, and Kentucky’s John Calipari $3.9 million. Same deal in college football. Alabama’s Nick Saban earned $6 million; Texas’ Mack Brown $5.2 million; and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops earned $4.4 million.

All I’ve proven here is that men’s college basketball and football are big money sports, with the top teams earning fortunes, as do their coaches.

But what about the students, or rather, the athletes? What do they earn? Well, nothing. It’s against the law for students to earn money from athletics. Well, legally, anyway. They play for fun, but many play for the opportunity to be drafted by either of these two leagues. But some do earn money, or “favors,” it seems, because, in the end, money drives the entire system. New Orleans Saints star and former Heisman award winner Reggie Bush played his college ball at the University of Southern California, where it was found that he received $290,000 in “gifts” for playing at USC. The multi-millionaire running back has repaid these gifts, but he also had to forfeit his Heisman award. USC stripped all mention of Bush on its materials and likenesses on campus.

While this is a premium example of the money laundering in college football, it is not the only story. Gifting in the NCAA is a huge industry and is alive and well. The practice of boosters (supporters of the team) providing money and other sundries to players is well known. The Ohio State University has had consistent issues with booster gifting in the past, and continues to have issues. Just last December, five Ohio State football players were suspended for selling their championship rings, jerseys, and other paraphernalia. Yes, they were suspended… but STILL ALLOWED TO PLAY in the Sugar Bowl two weeks later. They’re suspension was put off until the 2011 season. The Buckeyes won the Sugar Bowl 31-26 over Arkansas, and three of the “suspended” players accounted for 21 of Ohio’s points total. Worse to the story is that their coach, Jim Tressel, knew about the issue months before the press stumbled on the story and he failed to notify the authorities. Just about that time Coach Tressel learned of this illegal selling of items, he received a five-year contract extension earning him over $3.5 million/year. The man who serves as the mentor for these “students” thought it better not to follow NCAA rules by keeping mum on the subject. And while the NCAA handed him a fine and a two-game suspension, he still has his job. (NOTE: Tressel also has a $3 million severance clause; receives free cars for him and his wife; membership into a private golf club; and earns other income from TV and radio). Ohio State’s president, Gordon Gee, who currently reigns as the highest-paid university president in the world (likely) and is one of the most loved college presidents in the nation, not only did not fire Tressel, but supported him. It is now rumored that Tressel will be fired before the start of the season.

There are more examples. Just this week, the US Department of Justice began an investigation of antitrust laws against the NCAA Football Bowl Championship series, which unfairly keeps certain teams out of consideration. Additionally this week, a federal judge in California rejected the NCAA’s second attempt to dismiss a separate antitrust suit brought by former college football and basketball players about the use of their likenesses in EA Games’ NCAA Football video game. The NCAA gets paid well while the athletes do not get paid at all.

There are other problems in the NCAA. Even US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former NCAA player (basketball), has expressed concern over academic standards in these “semi-pro” leagues. Duncan graduated from Harvard, so there wasn’t much of an issue there. Student athletes graduate at relatively high levels there. But athletes in basketball and football are much lower than other sports. Worse, the gap between white athletes and black athletes is large. For instance, 91 percent of white players graduate, compared to 59 percent of black players.

So what is the NCAA to do about these big problems? I have a few ideas.

  1. Make Division I a truly semi-pro league. That’s what it is, anyway. But allow for revenue sharing among the players. They are the talent. Why is it these colleges can reap in the millions on the backs of students? It is another form of slavery, albeit some students will benefit greatly re: finances if they make the big leagues.
  2. Require a higher academic standard for student-athletes. Division I, II, and III athletics should be seen as a privilege. Academics must be seen as the core. This is higher education we’re talking about.
  3. Bring higher standards to the business of football and basketball at the collegiate level. Ohio State’s Tressel should be fired. Today. And he should not be rehired by any team. Why? He broke the cardinal rule: trust. He is currently earning $10,000 a day. President Gee: let him go.
  4. Students and youth will make mistakes. They need to be punished when they do. And because the punishments are inconsistent, they keep on making mistakes. The adults need to be clear about the punishments for offenses. NCAA needs to improve its oversight and be clear about the consequences of behavior: for students, for coaches, for institutions.
  5. IF THE SYSTEM MUST STAY AS IT IS, then I suggest colleges and universities get paid a development fee by the NFL. I suggest the NFL be required to pay each college the equivalent funding offered to their student-athletes in their first contract. For example, Sam Bradford from Oklahoma State was the top draft choice in the NFL in 2010. St. Louis Rams signed Bradford for $86 million, the highest contract ever to ANY player, not just a rookie (and yes, it was ridiculous). Let’s make the Rams pay OSU $86 million for prepping their player. Shouldn’t the college get a piece of the pie? [In truth, ONLY $50 million of the contract is guaranteed. I’ll cut the NFL some slack: drop the transfer fee to $50 million!]

By the way, I understand that at many institutions, the institution and non-athletes benefit from their big teams. Libraries and other facilities are supported with money earned from the football or basketball team. I don’t argue that. But it isn’t what college is about. Well, it isn’t anywhere but in America. At a time when graduation rates continue to be hideously low, when public subsidies for FTEs are being cut, we need to think clearly about how money is being used.

But most importantly, we need to come to a better understanding of what we want from our colleges and universities. Have fun playing ball, but it shouldn’t be the focus, and for too many Division I, II, and III institutions, it is. That needs to change, but the supply and demand curve of college athletics won’t allow that to happen. The money is too big.

Unless someone takes a stand.

Dr. Gee, let’s start with you.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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