Ending The College Sports Scandals – Forbes

Beaver Stadium on the campus of Penn State University. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Happy Valley Jam)

In 2009, I had an opinion column with Matt Denhart in the Wall Street Journal in which we bemoaned the massive financial exploitation of super good college athletes, such as star football quarterbacks or high scoring basketball players. In 2011 Taylor Branch wrote his magnificent and widely discussed “The Shame of College Sports” for the Atlantic Monthly. The next year, David Ridpath wrote his great book Tainted Glory detailing athletic corruption, particularly during his service at Marshall University. In short, for many years numerous commentators have outlined horrendous problems with college sports: cheating, exploitation of athletes, the debasing of academic values, the potential long run health effects of high contact sports, and so on. The sex-based scandals at Penn State shocked the nation, as did the revelations of “phantom courses” for athletes at North Carolina.

Yet nothing much happened. The Penn State episode brought jail time for some, and a fine against Penn State, but nothing much that would alter for any sustained period Nittany Lion football commercial value (the current team is currently ranked number four in both the AP and coaches polls). The NCAA, which laughably enforces conduct, has not done a single important thing to punish North Carolina, almost always a perennial basketball powerhouse. Now we learn that big time bribery is occurring in college basketball, with a prominent shoe company and several assistant coaches trying to use their exploitive power over athletics who are athletically adept but who have little business experience, hoping to enrich themselves. An iconic Hall of Fame quality head coach at Louisville has been effectively fired. The FBI, we are told, is heavily involved.

Will this latest scandal galvanize real reform? Maybe, but I am betting against it, for two reasons. First, people love college football and basketball, and the entertainment value provides buckets of money for schools and media outputs. They are going to fight reform that endangers those revenues. Second, real reform also implies a significant redistribution of income from mature adults (coaches and their support personnel) to athletes: coaches are not going to give up their multimillion dollar salaries without a fight.

There are three alternatives: a naïve one, a more realistic one that some would find still troublesome, and a radical one that largely decouples higher education from athletics, at least in the commercial sports.

The Naïve Solution

Remove the excessiveness of college sports. Reduce football seasons to 10 games and team rosters to 60. Prohibit varsity play until the sophomore year, with three years of varsity eligibility. Curtail practice lengths and duration so they do not interfere with athletes truly being students–and make violations of those rules a felony (enshrine them into law). Limit the number of assistant coaches. Prohibit segregation of athletes into separate eating, studying, and sleeping facilities. Eliminate most bowl games. Raise academic standards for athletes. Prohibit shoe company contracts with universities. Return college sports to roughly how it was say, in 1950. Major conferences with schools with good academic reputations, especially the Big Ten and the PAC 12, should quit the NCAA and say “we are going to stop compromising academic values in order to maintain ball throwing prowess.” Maybe even outlaw the NCAA on anti-trust grounds. All nice ideas, but they would face a torrent of opposition from colleges, athletes, fans, and media outlets.

An Arguably More Realistic Solution

Keep the current system largely intact, but make a few major changes. Most critically, treat players of major commercial sports as employees, and pay them whatever market conditions warrant. Allow athletes to be athletes, taking only part-time academic loads for at least during one semester a year of high work intensity (e.g, fall semester for football players). Still maintain, however, basic admission and other standards for players.

The Ultimate Solution: Create Minor Leagues In Football And Basketball

The radical solution is to largely decouple high-powered college sports from higher education. Create non-university owned minor leagues in the two major sports, probably including women’s basketball. The minor league teams and leagues could devise their own rules, regulations, etc., and might rent facilities from universities. The teams would not, however, use university name identification. Players would not be students. After high school, a good athletic prospect could sign with an NFL or NBA franchise, probably initially for play in the minor leagues, but ultimately (and for especially talented players, “ultimately” might be a fraction of a year) for NFL and NBA franchises. There are some transitional issues–for example, dealing with coaches with expensive long-term contracts, and stadium and other facility debt that must be paid off—that make this solution practically difficult, but it could be phased in over several years. Universities could sell stadiums and other facilities to partly finance transitional expenses.

I generally deplore federal government interference in higher education–on balance, for example, I believe federal student financial assistance programs and the U.S. Department of Education have raise costs and lowered quality. But the nature of sports requires a geographically broad-based solution. Maybe it is time for a truly prestigious federal commission be created and make sensible recommendations to end the shame that is college sports.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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