The core problem with college athletics reform

Ivan Maisel penned a thoughtful, fair-minded piece last week on ESPN.com about the Knight Commission — whose motto he tongue-in-cheek describes as “Tilting at Windmills since 1989″ — and the increasingly difficult challenge of advocating college athletics reform in an age when more money is flowing into big schools and major conferences than ever before.

The Knight Commission has picked up a number of allies along the way, including Title IX activists who still insist that football, in particular, is draining resources from women’s sports. Maisel points out that the body put the NCAA on its toes with such things as improving graduation rates for athletes. And yet:

“John Cheslock, the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, told the Commission that television revenue has increased from $55-75 million in the mid-1980s to about $1 billion last year, an increase of more than 1,000 percent.

“In other words, the Commission knows how to defend the wishbone, and intercollegiate athletics is running the spread.”

This has been the case for many decades, even before the battle over television revenues between the NCAA and the Lords of College Football that led to a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that created the current climate of wall-to-wall games spread out over multiple outlets on fall Saturdays. And many Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings this time of year as well.

Picture 2Indeed, the real story of the rise of college athletics since World War II is centered around that saga, and so very well-told by Alabama sportswriter Keith Dunnavant in his excellent 2004 book, “The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS.”

Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples wrote a terrific piece along these lines back in August, updating the timeline with new TV contracts, the realignment that has ensued and the entrepreneurial ethos of Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott now driving the commercial landscape of college athletics.

Reformers have always been at least several steps behind what they’re trying to rein in, usually for deeply philosophical reasons. But the advocacy of pure amateurism and education-first pushed by the Knight Commission, the NCAA, gender equity leaders and others forlorn about rampant commercialism in college athletics belies their own conflicted realities with money, prestige and competitive ambitions.

While it’s not surprising for Brit Kirwan, the chancellor of the University of Maryland system, to sound the alarm bell about higher and higher finances in college athletics, there’s a puzzling lack of a larger perspective about rampant spending in the rest of the higher education structure.

The Chronicle of Higher Education cited research this summer showing that nearly half of the nation’s colleges and universities are close to, or are headed toward, an “unsustainable financial path.” (That analysis, by the way, was prepared by Bain & Company, the consultancy where Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made his fortune.)

While that may sound alarmist, higher education leaders who wring their hands about paying $5 million a year for a football coach are just as tone-deaf about runaway tuition costs and the inability of many families to afford college. The risks of taking out hefty student loans and the crushing debt obligations that can hound graduates for decades are becoming too great for many young people and their parents to bear, especially with an uncertain economic future.

Before we can have an honest discussion about being prudent in the athletics department, this conversation must first take place in the main administration building.

Women’s sports advocates fought bitter battles with college football leaders three and four decades ago, at the dawn of the age of Title IX, just to squeeze out a few dollars to pay for new programs demanded by the law. Those fights sowed the seeds of distrust that remain, even though the commercial growth of college football and men’s college basketball has helped women’s sports to flourish at the highest levels. As former Stanford athletics director Ted Leland told Maisel, referencing the success of American women Olympians in London:

“The BCS schools are 25 percent of Division I, and they are providing about 100 percent of Olympic-level athletes in women’s sports. It’s a by-product of the huge influx of money from football.”

But for Title IX leaders to admit this would mean minimizing an “enemy” they need to further their advocacy. There’s plenty of red ink produced by football, as The Birmingham News recently reported about the public subsidies handed out to non-BCS athletics programs in the state of Alabama (including Troy, my alma mater). But women’s advocates would rather use that data to continue to demonize “King Football” than to acknowledge where the money comes from to pay for women’s programs — and basketball coaching salaries are the notable examples here — that will likely never be close to revenue-producing.

As for the NCAA, its decision on Monday to withdraw five national championship competitions from New Jersey because of that state’s new sports wagering law speaks volumes about what many will claim are its numerous hypocrisies.

The dispute involves legal action against the state from not just the NCAA, but professional sports leagues as well, and it figures to get even uglier.

But later on Monday USA Today reported that the NCAA, which is paying its top leaders more than their predecessors, has around $500 million in net assets. Not bad for a tax-exempt organization that professes to uphold the highest values of amateur sports and higher education. While NCAA staffers I have come to know are hard-working, humble people devoted to ensuring positive experiences for “student-athletes,” the top leadership of the organization has never been more out of touch with what those values really are.

Money will do that do you, of course, and it’s richly ironic that the NCAA is under increasing pressure to share its vast sums with the uncompensated athletes whose exploits have created this wealth.

Those sounding the loudest calls for reform have been unable to reconcile their purist, for-the-love-of-it ideals with the commercial realities that have engulfed the entire higher educational and college athletics enterprise.

That’s because they’ve been engulfed by this predicament too, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

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