Why college sports are impervious to reform

If Charles Dickens were writing about big-time college sports in 2011, he would have left it at, “It was the worst of times.”

The year began with long-standing concerns about runaway spending, a bowl system that unfairly favors rich conferences, and the exploitation of athletes. Then came a string of scandals at high-profile programs, among them Ohio State, North Carolina, and Miami. Then the year concluded with shocking allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse.

Fans and commentators have reacted with disgust and a slew of proposed remedies, including revenue sharing, a playoff system for football, minimum graduation rates for tournament participation, and putting players on the payroll. Some have even suggested spinning off athletic departments as independent commercial enterprises. Others advocate simply ending big-time college sports by getting rid of athletic scholarships.

This urge to reform is understandable. Unfortunately, history suggests that the prospects for fundamental reform are not bright. To see why we need to understand how the problems came to be.

For more than a century, American universities have sponsored football teams that are, in most respects, professional. And for most of that time, big-time college sports have been subjected to criticisms every bit as vehement as those expressed today.

In 1922, Upton Sinclair wrote, “College athletics, under the spur of commercialism, has become monstrous cancer.” An exhaustive report by the Carnegie Commission in 1929 pointed to the temptations created by “the monetary and material returns from sport” and the resulting “distorted scheme of values.” Other national reports followed in 1953, 1974, and 1991, leveling precisely the same indictment.

In this century, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports charged that universities had “allowed commercial interests — television, shoe companies, corporate sponsors of all sorts — to dictate the terms under which college sports operate.”

Despite the consistent criticism over the decades, the problems of today’s big-time college sports have remained remarkably unchanged. Only the dollar amounts are different, thanks to inflation and the tremendous commercial opportunities opened up by cable television.

As tempting as it is to blame greedy commercial influences in the marketplace, the real culprits in this persistent failure to reform have been, and remain, the universities themselves.

For universities with big-time sports programs, sports have always been a core function, right up there with research and teaching. For reasons uniquely American, college football and basketball not only enjoy widespread popularity, but they also take on tremendous importance for trustees, alumni, and other university stakeholders. These leaders want successful teams, in part because they believe that athletic success will bolster their institutions’ academic mission, but mostly because they value athletic success for its own sake.

This imperative to win explains most of the persistent problems of big-time college sports, beginning with the willingness of universities to compromise on the academic front. It also explains universities’ readiness to commercially exploit the popular form of entertainment that they alone produce.

And because there seems to be no limit to the expenditures that can be justified, college sports programs find themselves in an arms race with one another — for facilities, coaches, and, ultimately, attracting the most talented high school athletes. To some extent, though, universities have protected themselves from destructive competition by agreeing, through the NCAA, to limit what can be paid to players.

The universities that operate big-time sports programs do so with open eyes. They are not ignorant of the costs that accompany this activity. They have simply decided that the benefits of participating outweigh the costs. That is why reform efforts over the years have been so consistently unsuccessful.

History’s lesson is this: We won’t be able to achieve significant reform in big-time sports without first reforming universities. Fearless leadership by university presidents isn’t enough. We must begin by recruiting trustees who care as much about the quality of academic research and instruction as success in football and basketball. If that really happened, universities could start with modest reforms, like banning beer ads during the NCAA tournament or adopting Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s idea of beefing up minimum graduation rates to play in the tournament.

If universities aren’t willing to take even baby steps like these, which they haven’t in the past, the chance for real reform will occur only when an even bigger scandal pushes Congress to act. Universities almost certainly won’t like the outcome.

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