Jacobs: Time to challenge concepts underlying college sports

April 13, 2014 

Swirling for more than a century, the disturbance shows no sign of abating. If anything, each week brings word of some fresh downdraft of injustice, cloud of hypocrisy, burst of corruption, or renewed legal lightning.

Conjured classwork. Under-the-table payments to players. Repeat hirings of coaches proven to be cheaters or liars or verbal abusers. Lawsuits over concussions, profiteering through sale of player likenesses, the capping of player compensation at the price of a scholarship. Coaches’ salaries escalating to millions of dollars. The rate of growth in spending on athletics rising drastically compared to academic funding at football-playing colleges and universities. Schools jumping from league to league, abandoning tradition and geographic sanity in search of enhanced revenue. Athletic facilities growing ever larger and more grandiose. Rich boosters dictating hires, uniforms, the names of buildings.

The characters and incidents change over the years, but college athletics seems doomed to replay the same old tunes. Palliative reforms are discussed with great fanfare and breathless anticipation, but never quite deliver. Maddening contradictions are explained away to no one’s satisfaction. From all quarters come assurances that solutions are just around the corner.

When a chill wind blows from an unexpected quarter – as in last month’s National Labor Relations Board ruling that granted Northwestern football players the right to unionize – defenders of the status quo rush to insist our fundamental understandings must not waver.

“To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said at a Final Four news conference. “It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”

Which begs the question: Would that really be so bad?

There have been other instances in American history when an inequitable social and economic order was considered immutable. Most of those arrangements were based on paternalism and exploitation, although to a greater degree than the NCAA. Well-meaning people perhaps lamented the unfairness of those systems, or spoke of making gradual change. But always the weight of precedent and entrenched interest was accepted as controlling. As things were, so they would always be.

Until, that is, the voiceless found their voices.

Similar stirrings may now threaten American college sports, if only from the bottom up. Certainly there’s ample reason to question the assumption the current arrangement is to be cherished and protected. But instead of tinkering with the existing edifice, as we are so frequently encouraged to do, we might be better served to reduce the discussion to a few core concepts:

The amateur model. There are no amateur athletes in major-college sports, not consistent with the 19th century notions of competitive purity that undergird NCAA policy. Yet the fiction persists, complicating any discussion that hints at overt player compensation. Division I athletes are surely given special treatment based on their participation in college sports. Yet those who supply the benefits are fiercely reluctant to admit the glaringly obvious.

“This whole issue of just who are the athletes and what experience are they having would be advanced if we stopped using the word ‘amateur’ and force people to actually say what they mean instead of using that code,” argued Jeff Orleans, former president of the Ivy League and a freelance sport consultant.

“It’s just that you’re getting a benefit that the member institutions of the NCAA have agreed to permit. And they’ve agreed to permit it in part to help people go to school but also in part to eliminate price competition when they’re recruiting athletes. If we could just get rid of that word and instead say, what do we want the experience of a highly recruited and highly successful football person to be at one of the institutions in question?”

Association with institutions of higher learning. Where once college sports teams were led by students for students, now they’re part of a major industry employing thousands of administrators and coaches, attracting millions of spectators, and earning billions of dollars. What this has to do with the missions of colleges and universities is a matter of perpetual debate.

“There is a logic behind it all, but when you boil it down to what’s driving it, it’s not that pretty a scene. The universities who set themselves up to be about research and teaching and service really are about one more thing in a lot of cases, and that other thing is entertainment,” said Charles Clotfelder, a Duke professor of public policy and professor of economics and law, and author of the 2011 book, “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.”

“The commercial interests are just everywhere you look, and so the alteration would be for the institutions to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not what we’re about.’”

But, then, sports has become a wonderful tool for marketing a university’s brand and for attracting the tax-deductible allegiance of individuals and corporations.

Gender equality. Prior to the 1972 enactment of Title IX, there were few scholarship opportunities available for female athletes. For a long time, it was considered unseemly for women to perspire. Nor were they supposed to be physiologically capable of competing in athletics. In his 1976 book, “Sports in America,” James Michener explored at length such “ticklish questions,” concluding that science proved “the woman’s cardiovascular system does not limit her, nor her respiratory capacity, nor her metabolism.”

Yet in most discussions of the preferential treatment commanded by programs that generate revenue – mainly men’s basketball and football – this historic constraint on women’s participation is forgotten. The inherent qualities of the men’s games weren’t necessarily the sole reason for their popularity. If female athletes had similarly commanded support for more than a century, enabling them to compete for attention, perhaps spectators and TV viewers would flock as often to women’s gymnastics as to football.

Imagine how different society would be if that had happened.

Sportsmanship. Fair play and honor can seem every bit as dated as amateurism and belief in women’s physical inferiority. No matter how many times schools and their leaders declare their commitment to integrity, cheating endures. No wonder we’ve grown skeptical that individuals and institutions will act honorably without compulsion or threat of punishment – in sports or beyond.

Meanwhile, NCAA policing can be maddeningly slow. Sanctions are applied unevenly. Picayune infractions draw rebuke while seemingly brazen violations endure without penalty. Rules proliferate to control those for whom winning trumps sportsmanship, but inevitably the vast law-abiding majority is affected as well. Reformers and interested onlookers frequently find these regulatory baffles excessive, confusing and arbitrary.

Of course the same might be said of the college sports model Mark Emmert and others are so anxious to preserve. Which is why, rather than endlessly tinker and fulminate, we’re better served stepping outside the bubble of conventional thought to examine the ideas that shape the current college system. Challenging assumptions may not solve the dilemmas that bedevil the NCAA, but it can direct our vision toward a clearer, fairer horizon.

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