The community forum topic was daunting: “How to fix what is broken in big-time college sports.” And do it in 90 minutes.
Four panelists gave it a shot Wednesday as part of The News & Observer Community Voices series, and their opinions and positions were as varied as their professions: attorney, journalist, college professor and Knight Commission chief executive officer.
The NCAA was called a “criminal conspiracy” and “illegal cartel” during the discussion. There was talk of antitrust exemptions, lawsuits, shoe company money to recruits, concussions, U.S. tax reform, FBI bribery investigations and Alabama football coach Nick Saban being paid $11 million a year.
Such is the muddled mess that is college sports today.
“If you want to solve the problem of big-time college sports, instead of this panel you need the presidents of the universities up here,” said panelist Robert Orr, a former associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. “I’m afraid if you posed the question to them, how to solve the problems of big-time college sports, their response would be, ‘What problem? This is a multimillion cash cow that we are benefiting from in so many ways.’
“Much like an alcoholic who refuses to admit a problem, I think the big challenge is how do we motivate and push the leadership of higher education into acknowledging big-time college sports has a serious problem in many ways and that we have to start the discussion at that level about solutions.”
That’s what the late William Friday, former president of the UNC System, and other college leaders attempted to do more than 30 years ago at the NCAA convention, when a presidents commission was created. Later, as co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Friday and the commission members again urged college presidents and chancellors to reign in and control their athletic departments to prevent scandals that could badly damage a school’s reputation and to provide a meaningful educational experience for the athletes resulting in graduation.
Amy Perko, who now serves as CEO of the Knight Commission, is a former Wake Forest basketball star who has past experience with NCAA Enforcement, as a college athletic administrator and with the NBA Developmental League.
Perko noted some incremental reforms have been made such as giving athletes more free time and added protections, and the requirement that teams be on track to graduate half their athletes to be eligible for postseason play. She said the graduation rate for athletes now was the highest ever and that athletes are receiving more benefits, saying, “There has been areas of progress.”
But Perko said there are flaws in the system, noting many believe the “system is totally broken.” Perko said NCAA president Mark Emmert, recently addressing the Knight Commission, said nationwide polling revealed that 80 percent of the American public believes big universities put money ahead of their athletes.
“President Emmert said it’s hard to find 80 percent of Americans who agree on anything, and I agree with that,” Perko said. “That should cause university presidents great anxiety.”
Richard Southall, a professor at the University of South Carolina, was the most caustic in his comments, generally advocating blowing up the NCAA and starting over.
Southall said talk of meaningful reform within the NCAA is “a fiction” and that what was needed was a full-fledged revolution to attack the “illegal cartel” that is the NCAA and its “cherished amateur facade.”
“In the current environment, many reformers either ignore or misconstrue big-time college sports’ exploitative nature,” said Southall, who teaches courses in college sport and sport business ethics. “Consequentially, meaningful change is doomed to fail. Trapped within the current paradigm, reformers are seemingly satisfied with minor victories – cost of attendance stipends, the option of four-year grants in aid and calls for reduction in practice schedules.
“What is overlooked is the NCAA’s century-old model of collegiate athletics, rebranded or not, is a criminal conspiracy. … What is needed is not reform, which fundamentally serves to perpetuate the status quo, but rather a revolution, a paradigm shift in which previously normalized beliefs are discarded and replaced by new ones.”
Pay the players, he said, especially in the main revenue sports of football and men’s basketball. Set up a college players association to negotiate wages.
Southall said one way the athletes could get the full attention of NCAA leaders could be at a Final Four. Imagine, he said, the players remaining in the locker room or remaining frozen in place during the opening jump ball, then saying, “We’re not playing yet, let’s talk about the money.”
The forum at the N.C. Museum of History included N&O reporter Dan Kane, whose reporting on academic irregularities at UNC led to an NCAA investigation but no sanctions against the university.
Orr filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA on the behalf of former UNC athletes who said their educations were compromised because of the academic scandal.
“If there is any organization in this country that epitomizes hypocrisy, in my mind, it’s the NCAA,” Orr said. “I mean they talk a great game and then the kids continue to get the short end of the stick.”