ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — A series of recent scandals involving players receiving money, cars and other improper benefits, along with violations by recruiters and sports agents, has debased the already tarnished reputation of college sports. Schools like the University of Miami, the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California, to name just a few, have been in the news more for abusing the rules than for teaching their students.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is supposed to hold colleges and universities accountable, but it has been reluctant to police with any stringency the growing number of violations. The assumption that the NCAA can develop safeguards and mete out punishment for those who violate its rules is wishful thinking. The NCAA is simply not up to the task; college trustees need to take charge instead.
In 1991, I introduced a bill in the House of Representatives aimed at reforming college athletics. My bill would have granted the NCAA an exemption from antitrust laws, which would allow it to constrain the extraordinary growth in athletic spending by schools. Under my proposal, the distribution of money from broadcast fees and other income would have been based not on winning or losing, but on the academic performance of the athletes, gender equity, and the breadth and diversity of the sports programs. The bill would have rewarded those schools promoting the values of higher education.
My attempt at reform failed, and in the 20 years since, things have gotten worse. There is just too much money involved in the multibillion-dollar industry that is college athletics to expect the participants to police themselves. Bloated college sports budgets, with coaches who earn millions of dollars, often more than college presidents, have created a situation where the tail is wagging the dog, with the result that colleges are losing control over their own athletic programs.
Moreover, once the NCAA does get around to punishing violations, the culprits have often moved on. To take one notorious example, the $4 million-a-year football coach at USC, Pete Carroll, resigned in January 2010, just as the NCAA was investigating accusations that the former player Reggie Bush had accepted improper gifts from agents. Carroll was subsequently named head coach of the Seattle Seahawks with a five-year, $30 million-plus contract. By the time the NCAA announced sanctions against the USC. football team, in June, he was safely gone.
Universities take pride in the success of their sports teams, but their reputations suffer when things go wrong. If they truly want to prevent scandals, they need to take control. And the people who can and must make this happen are the trustees and regents of these institutions, not the presidents, who are less equipped to stand up to the economic pressure from alumni and fans.
Currently, many boards are too cozy with athletic departments; their members forget that their job is to protect the institution - not the coaches, not the boosters and not the fans. But if they want to avoid embarrassment and scandal, they need to be much more involved in maintaining standards.
Many institutions have a laissez-faire attitude toward their athletic departments; given the profits from sports broadcasting and the fervor of alumni and fans, their reluctance to rein in athletic directors, coaches and players is understandable. But trustees and regents have both a legal and an ethical obligation to do what is right for their schools.
If more colleges and universities would adopt the recommendations of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, we'd see fewer violations of NCAA rules and of the law. Among the recommendations are these: regents should approve annual athletic budgets and significant capital expenditures; athletic departments should undergo annual audits by independent auditors; each school's board should have a committee to monitor compliance with NCAA rules and student performance; and boards should approve compensation of coaches and directors.
Some schools are beginning to recognize the wisdom of these proposals. Regents at Kansas State University now conduct annual audits of the athletic department. Regents at the University of Michigan sign off on athletic departments' operating and capital budgets. Both the University of Colorado and Georgetown University have panels dedicated to athletic issues. The boards at Texas A&M University and the Universities of Wisconsin and Oklahoma must approve any changes in compensation for the highest-paid athletic personnel.
These are encouraging changes. The NCAA should be more rigorous in keeping colleges compliant with its rules, but true accountability rests with individual boards. The schools would then not need to respond to the disgrace of violations and penalties, but could prevent the scandals in the first place.
Tom McMillen, a former Democratic representative from Maryland, is a regent of the University System of Maryland. A Rhodes Scholar, he played basketball for Maryland in the early 1970s and then for 12 years in the NBA.