When it comes to college athletics, it's time to speak truth to evil.
You might think evil is too strong a word for what's going on in college athletics, but consider how Webster's Dictionary defines evil: morally reprehensible; causing harm; offensive.
Here's the current reality of college sports:
•NCAA Division I sports — especially at Football Bowl Subdivision schools — has nothing to do with education. It's all about big business. The University of Maryland athletic department has a lot more in common with the Washington Redskins than it does with any other department on campus.
•The student-athletes' best interests are never truly considered during college sports policymaking and decision-making sessions. (If they were, would Rutgers agree to join a conference requiring all its teams to travel to Lincoln, Neb. for league games?)
•The opinions and feelings of students on campus, loyal fans and alumni are completely irrelevant.
•Tradition and conference loyalty mean nothing. Maryland was a founding member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) 59 years ago. What's that worth in the mind of school president Wallace Loh? Zippo.
•The geographic location of conference members is completely irrelevant. San Diego State will soon be in the Big East conference.
•Academics are a secondary consideration for schools caught up in the current arms race in college sports. Our nation's top universities don't hesitate dropping 100-year old academic programs one day and pumping millions into a new athletic training facility the next.
The NCAA's stated purpose is "to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount." That's a sad joke.
If you watch what college presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners actually do, you'll realize that only one question is ever considered when it comes to college athletics: What decision can I make that will generate the most revenue? When all you value is dollar bills, it's hard to do the right thing.
What is the right thing in college sports? It begins with taking care of the athletes who generate the billions of dollars involved.
For starters, schools need to cover all sports-related medical expenses for their athletes and not pull the scholarships of athletes injured while playing for their school. It means providing scholarships that cover the full cost of college attendance. It includes not scheduling weeknight games at schools two time zones from campus. It means not yanking the scholarships of kids who are thriving in the classroom but not performing on the field or court, at least according to the coach.
But perhaps most of all, doing the right thing means establishing economic justice for college athletes. It's a huge civil rights issue. Currently, the athletes responsible for the multibillion-dollar industry known as college sports don't see a dime of the billions they generate.
We need to allow athletes to benefit from their fame and likeness. Let athletes take endorsement money from the local auto dealer, just like the coaches who lead them. If the local grocery store wants to pay a college athlete to sign autographs for two hours during a store sale, why shouldn't the athlete have that opportunity? If someone wants to give an athlete a gift, why should that be banned? Music students in college are free to accept cash or gifts for playing a weekend gig at the local club. What makes athletes different?
The Olympics dumped the amateur myth and allowed athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And guess what? The world didn't end! In fact, the Olympics are more popular than ever.
As a society, we hold some leverage on these greed-driven college presidents. We gave special nonprofit tax treatment to colleges and universities at a time when they were clearly focused on conducting academic activities as part of their educational mission.
However, big-time sports today is a multibillion-dollar industry having nothing to do with education. If college presidents continue to refuse to do the right thing, then it's time we act. And that means removing the nonprofit, tax-exempt status their big-time college athletic departments enjoy.
College presidents, you're officially on alert.
Ralph Nader is the founder of League of Fans. Ken Reed (firstname.lastname@example.org) is sports policy director for the group.