Why is such a drastic proposal suggested? Let us count some major reasons.
TO BEGIN, NOT only is the relationship between the NCAA and the university the height of hypocrisy, the association devotes much of its resources to promoting the myth of amateurism among its student-athletes. But the student becomes a professional athlete the moment the scholarship contract is signed, for athletic services to be performed in exchange for tuition waiver and myriad other benefits – all subject to close NCAA monitoring. For most athletes, the reference to them as student-athletes is semantic flim-flam. Much of this monitoring is so absurd that only sportswriters can hardly restrain from smiling while reporting it.
Recently, this amateur-status monitoring has led it to investigate the alleged receipt of autograph money by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M University. Athletes are forbidden to accept royalties from clothes manufacturers who sell shirts, jerseys, and hats with the athlete’s name displayed. Even university boosters are forbidden to make gifts to current athletes or those being recruited. The feverish scale of this monitoring is ridiculous, hypocritical, humorous and sad. If athletes were treated as professionals, which they are, this spectacle would not occur.
Pressures are mounting, however, for schools to pay athletes – in addition to the standard emoluments – regular salaries. If this practice is adopted, it likely will be a transition to unwelcomed unionization, collective bargaining, strikes and National Labor Relations Board interventions.
IT IS DIFFICULT to avoid the conclusion that athletes are grossly underpaid – indeed, exploited – by this unwholesome NCAA-university partnership. The market price for athlete services can be determined only in a free, competitive market that would be afforded by separation. Meanwhile, athletic departments are able to spread the net revenue earned by athletes into:
• elaborate physical facilities for its athletes (the University of Oregon, for example, has just acquired a sumptuous 145,000-square-foot facility for the benefit of its football team);
• exorbitant salaries for its athletic coaches and administrators compared to faculty compensation (the University of Alabama’s head coach allegedly receives an annual salary in excess of $5 million, which compares to the $400,000 annual stipend of the president of the United States). These salaries, in a more competitive market, would be subject to being shared with their now full-fledged professional athletes – not because of fairness, but because they earned it.
BECAUSE OF these revenue distributions, universities presumably qualify as nonprofit organizations, highlighting the old saw that nonprofit institutions often are the most profitable.
As further evidence of the strange motives driving some institutions, the president of Colorado State University has announced a program to raise $248 million for a 40,000-seat football stadium. This is to fund a hopefully victorious football team to attract higher-tuition-paying out-of-state students. This tail is
wagging the dog.
Separation implies that the university loses a chunk of net revenue – athletic tickets and TV and radio rights. In the future, who knows what else will be generating athletic revenues. Donations to athletic programs also will be foregone. These will tend to be offset, however, by revenues from leasing football stadiums to professional teams. The expenses of operating athletic departments, except for academic purposes, would vanish. Universities that run these athletic programs as profit centers will be financially injured; those that are currently suffering losses will benefit.
ACADEMIC STUDENTS could adopt the succeeding professional football team as an object to be supported with attendance, cheers, blessings and all the associated pageantry, just as some NFL clubs have local loyal fans with their booster clubs. There could even be a large band, with or without university support.
Loyal alumni would maintain their class ties and friendships, and continue to satisfy their need to be entertained on fall Saturday afternoons. Indeed, when the home team falls behind their opponents, alumni may still harshly criticize their stalwarts with the hackneyed expression that they are playing like a bunch of amateurs.
PROFESSIONAL athletes would then have the option of attending the local university, but they need not, thus burying the hypocritical label “student-athletes.” Moreover, the absence of student-athletes obviates the need for athletic-department monitoring of student academic progress, not necessarily because of interest in students progressing normally toward degrees, but in maintaining their eligibility to play, which is what they are presumably paid to do.
Maintaining top-flight football and basketball programs tends to dilute academic standards. Aggressive competition for recruits has led universities to develop various means to attract and retain such personnel. It is the task of the NCAA to monitor recruiting practices. But there is one area the NCAA, thus far, has no jurisdiction: academic standards.
To admit athletes who are less academically qualified, schools can design programs that are attuned to athletes’ qualifications, skills and aptitudes. Non-athletes can enter such courses, too, thus weakening academic standards. But other conference schools respond by offering similar weaker programs, further weakening of academic standards. This is the wrong kind of competition.
There are other advantages of separation. Currently the NCAA acts as judge, jury and prosecutor in adjudicating alleged violations of its code, analogous to the powers exercised by a government administrative tribunal. It can impose severe punishment on students as well as universities, as illustrated by its disciplinary decrees against Penn State University. Separating the NCAA from academia would render such violations – well, academic.
AFTER THE SHOCK of separation is absorbed, many options are open to the university in moving toward separation, each one being a potentially significant milestone. But whatever progress is achieved, the football and basketball programs at the major universities require careful assessment, with a particular focus on redefining the academic purpose these schools are seeking to serve. Separation provides universities with a rich opportunity to re-establish the integrity of their academic programs.
(The writer is a professor emeritus of financial economics at the University of Georgia. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)