Time for Congress to fix college sports

May 17, 2014 

Whether you agree with how the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has handled the scandal over athletics and academics, it’s hard not to have sympathy for the university’s struggles. Even the most devoted “Anybody But Carolina” fan may not have wanted the painful state and national scrutiny to go on this long and take such a toll on the university’s reputation and morale.

But the saddest part of the situation is this: UNC will eventually extract itself from this ordeal, but it can’t escape the forces that caused it. For what happened at Chapel Hill is part of a national scandal in college sports. Until that is resolved, every school that tries to compete at the top levels of men’s basketball and football will be a part of a system that is by its nature unfair and dishonest.

There have always been these elements in the so-called revenue sports and reformers have been forming commissions and writing books about the corruption and hypocrisy for decades. But over the years has come cable and broadcast TV’s expanded coverage, Nike’s millions of dollars in shoe and uniform contracts, coaches with contracts that crossed the million dollar barrier and just kept going, the arms race in athletics facilities, the NBA’s age-limit rule that created a new class of one-and-done players, the exposure of the long-term effects of football-related concussions, an overuse of learning disability designations and an huge expansion of tutoring programs and to help athletes get in and stay in school. Even Heisman trophy winners had to give the trophy back because of improper benefits while they played or had the honor tainted by claims that they escaped rape charges because of the local worship of football.

Now is the time for a national effort to set the biggest of college sports right by making them truly college sports again. Make them games in which students who want and can achieve a college education compete and graduate with a real education. End the minor-league, semi-pro, coach-as-god arrangements that now dominate the upper levels of basketball and football.

This is going to take more than another round of meetings by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics or scolding speechs from NCAA President Mark Emmert. This is going to take an act of Congress. It will require that the lawmakers do their jobs and respond to problems that are hurting college athletes and undermining major institutions of higher learning.

Members of Congress are understandably reluctant to get involved. There aren’t many votes in messing with football in Alabama or basketball in North Carolina. No one wants to ruin the party. But the party is ruining itself and the institutions that play host. The idea is to save the college game, not end it. The idea is to find a way to free universities from the entertainment divisions that have come to steer them and compromise them.

To that end, there have been encouraging developments recently. The issues of big time college sports have begun to be discussed Congress.

The first round was brought on by a hearing on a regional National Labor Relations Board Ruling that football players at Northwestern University should be allowed to unionize because, by the measures that matter, they are unpaid school employees. The word “union” naturally drew the interest of House Republicans who condemned the idea as contrary to college sports, mom and apple pie. But at least it drew attention to the issue of the ever more lucrative entertainment complex built on the labor of unpaid players.

Paying college players will cause more problems than it will solve. But there are still problems of compensation to be addressed. Players should be better insured. Their scholarships should be guaranteed for four years. They should be allowed more time off to study and be free to take on demanding course work, including labs, without coaches pressuring them into classes that better fit practice schedules.

It’s encouraging that the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is taking an interest in these issues. Three members of the committee, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), wrote to NCAA president Emmert last week questioning the NCAA’s oversight of college sports and what it is doing to stop the exploitation of college athletes. The committee claims jurisdiction over the NCAA because the organization engages in interstate commerce. It will hold a hearing on the well-being of college athletes in the coming weeks, the senators said.

In writing to Emmert, the senators referred to his response to the NLRB decision concerning Northwestern University players’ right to unionize. “In expressing your opinion about the unionization effort, you were quoted as saying the effort is ‘a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems that exist in college athletics,’” the letter reads. “However, if the NCAA were accomplishing its mission of protecting student-athletes from exploitative practices, those efforts would be unnecessary and likely unsuccessful.”

The Senate inquiry is a start. Then it needs to expand to include the list of big college sports’ troubles and the NCAA’s failures.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or

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