'Reforms' Don't Fix Commercialization of College Sports


The "March madness" surrounding the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament reminds us that college sport, whether we like it or not, is commercial entertainment.

The NCAA recently signed a $1 billion contract with CBS for the rights to the men's basketball tournament through 1997. If a football team is selected for the Rose Bowl, it receives $6 million, which is shared with other league members. The most successful schools approach $20 million budgets for their sports programs.

This financial success has also brought wave after wave of scandal. Winning teams increase attendance, are televised often and are selected to participate in lucrative bowl games or tournaments. Losing teams, conversely, tend to have relatively poor attendance, are not televised and, thus, lose money.

Similarly, winning coaches receive all sorts of financial gain such as contracts with shoe companies (as much as $300,000 a year), television shows, lucrative summer camps, housing, cars and entertainment allowances.

The pressures to win, therefore, are enormous, resulting often in the recruitment of athletes unprepared for college studies, in illegal payments to athletes, and in a mockery of education by altering the transcripts of athletes, having surrogate test-takers, providing phantom courses and not moving the athletes toward graduation.

The NCAA, as the organization of schools involved in sports, is responsible for the conduct of most college sports. (Some smaller institutions are governed by the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association.) The rules that govern college athletics are made at annual conventions with each member school voting.

In practice, each vote usually has been cast by the athletic director -- which meant that during the time of great expansion of intercollegiate sport, the rules have been determined by the athletic establishments rather than by academic officials. The NCAA has been relatively powerless to control the scandals of big-time intercollegiate sport or to run sport in congruence with the goals of higher education.

The most recent attempt by the NCAA to address its problems has been the creation of a commission of university presidents to help in the reform and redirection of intercollegiate athletics. The Presidents' Commission has operated since 1984, but its impact has been minimal.

The 1991 NCAA convention offered hope of major changes directed by the Presidents' Commission. This time the major agenda items were the commission's, members of the commission lobbied actively for their proposals, and a number of presidents (about 100 more than usual) attended to cast votes for their institutions.

As a result, the commission was able to get many of its proposals approved. Richard Schultz, executive director of the NCAA, said passage of the reform package signaled a turning point: "What it indicates is that the presidents are willing to step forward and assume their proper role as chief executives of athletics as well as their institutions." Articles reporting the convention hailed a new era of reform.

But what were the reforms that the presidents "rammed through" the convention? How reforming are they? What are the consequences of the rules passed? And what was not part of the commission's package? In effect, did the Presidents' Commission and the NCAA attack the problems endemic to big-time intercollegiate sport in 1991 or did they, once again, tinker with the system without changing it?

The major legislation at the recent convention occurred in two areas -- cost containment and player-related issues.

* Cost containment.

Scholarships were reduced by 10 percent across the board in all sports except gymnastics, tennis and women's volleyball. Scholarship reduction in Division I (schools with the largest programs and most athletic scholarships) will be phased in for football and basketball over three years.

Effective Aug. 1, 1992, coaching staffs will be reduced in 33 sports. Football coaching staffs in Division I-A, for example, must be reduced from 9 to 8.

These reductions in scholarships and coaches will save the average Division I football program an estimated $500,000 annually.

The concern of the presidents and the NCAA convention delegates with cost-cutting indicates the primacy of money in the equation for these decision-makers.

A consequence of cutting scholarships by 10 percent is that at any one time more than 1,500 athletes nationwide will be denied the opportunity to compete on the Division I level. Those from low-income families kept from athletic scholarships may be denied their only chance for a college education.

Another effect of this action is increased pressures on recruiting. With fewer scholarships available, recruiting will become even more competitive, which will increase the likelihood of recruiting scandals.

A final result is that players who do not produce quickly may be forced by coaches to give up their scholarships. Coaches have this power because, while the player makes a four-year commitment to a school, the school's commitment is only one year at a time.

* Player-oriented issues.

Under the new rules, all Division I schools must make counseling and tutoring services available to all recruited athletes. By Aug. 1, 1996, all athletic dormitories must be eliminated. Exit interviews will be required for athletes in every sport to determine time demanded by sports participation and any concerns of the athletes about their athletic experiences. Finally, in-season practice time will be limited to a maximum of four hours a day and 20 hours a week.

These player-oriented rule changes are in the right direction, that is, in the direction of bringing the "student" back into the student-athlete role. However, they are mild and timid moves at best.

Removal of athletic dorms, those symbols of athletic elitism and isolation, is important but why delay the deadline until 1996?

Exit interviews are useful because athletes no longer under the control of a coach are able to speak freely about problems and abuses, but where is the mechanism to use these exit interviews for future change? Moreover, exit interviews do not help the athletes being interviewed, only (potentially) those that follow.

Reducing practice time is clearly important, but it is probably unenforceable, given the creativity of coaches at circumventing the present rules on practices. Unless there are meaningful ways to police this rule, it will have only the symbolic value of "going on the record" of favoring the reduction of athletic demands on student-athletes.

Although the 1991 convention made some gestures favorable to student-athletes, its efforts were feeble and did not attack the systemic problems that plague big-time college sport.

In the area of academics, the convention did not address the issue of freshman eligibility. It did not confront the scheduling of games at odd times -- at the convenience of television but at the expense of athletes missing class time to travel.

It defeated a proposal that would have required Division I schools to graduate 50 percent of their scholarship athletes. It also defeated a proposal to require athletes to post minimum grade-point averages each year. (To their credit, the delegates did pass a mild rule requiring that athletes entering their fourth year in school must have completed 50 percent of their requirements toward a degree.)

Neither the President's Commission nor the other delegates faced crucial athletes' rights issues.

Some of the issues not addressed include: the right of athletes to sign with an agent before the end of eligibility (any other student or coach can have an agent or business manager to look after his or her interests); the right to fair compensation (schools and coaches can maximize the commercial value of the athletes, but the athletes cannot); the right to have a job in the off-season (as any other student may have); and the incongruity of the one-year commitment of the school to the scholarship athlete while the athlete must make a four-year commitment to the school.

The convention delayed a decision as to whether athletes should be allowed to enter professional football and basketball without losing their eligibility if not selected. The current rule denies athletes the right to leave school for a profession and to reenter school if they wish, which all other students may do with impunity.

So while this year's NCAA convention seemed to make more progress than in previous years, the interest of the decision-makers, whether athletic directors or college presidents, seems to be primarily containing costs and maintaining the current bureaucratic structure.

Efforts to meet student-related issues were half-hearted at best. To quote my colleague, George Sage, a sociologist at University of Northern Colorado and a former college basketball coach, as he commented on previous NCAA conventions:

"Any attempt to reorganize existing structural relations is conspicuously absent from reform in intercollegiate athletics. The structure of big-time, commercial college athletics -- a structure that is largely responsible for the pervasive corruption and abuses -- has been left intact, with no substantive changes."

That analysis still holds. The evidence is that the President's Commission has given us more hype than hope. Because NCAA "reforms" are more cosmetic than structural, many of these problems will continue to intensify.

D. Stanley Eitzen is professor of sociology at Colorado State University. He is author of two books on the sociology of sport and is former president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.

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