‘Education needs to trump sports’
The following column by Robert Malekoff, associate professor and chair of the Sports Studies Department, appeared Sept. 15, 2013, in the Greensboro News & Record.
A colleague asked me the other morning if I was frustrated. He knew I’d been working the last five months on a five-person panel charged with making recommendations that might, well, fix college sports. We released our report last week and reactions to it have ranged, predictably, from complimentary to highly skeptical.
University of North Carolina faculty and then-Chancellor Holden Thorp called for our panel after several recent scandals related to athletics at Chapel Hill. Our marching orders were to develop recommendations for UNC specifically but also to guide universities that are grappling with similar issues nationally.
Most pundits don’t quibble with the recommendations that focus on aligning intercollegiate athletics with educational missions. But some cite past failed efforts to reform college sports and argue that the enterprise is just too big, that there is too much money flowing through the system for substantive change to gain traction. NCAA naysayer Jay Bilas probably spoke for many when he tweeted: “Rawlings panel recommendations: Smart people, good intentions. But, same old song, unlikely to happen. Big business.”
Most observers agree that colleges and universities exist first and foremost to discover (research) and disseminate (teaching) knowledge. While athletics must be secondary to these primary missions, the seeming insatiable pursuit of athletic glory has led to the two biggest challenges facing college sports today: an ongoing threat to academic integrity and a fiscal model that is both inappropriate and unsustainable.
Too often universities choose to admit talented athletes who are academically ill prepared. Under the best of circumstances these students will likely struggle in the classroom. Adding to their challenge are the 40-plus hours per week that they must devote to training, practice, team meetings, etc. This is precisely why universities should admit only those athletes whose academic credentials mirror those of non-athlete “special admits” and who demonstrate a commitment to learning.
In addition, it is logical to assume that academic outcomes for all athletes might benefit from a reduction in the number of hours devoted to sports activities. Particularly at-risk students need even more time to devote to studies, a “year of readiness” whereby they would be ineligible for varsity competition and would have limited participation in practices.
The present college sports fiscal model is simply unsustainable. Athletics revenue is at an all-time high, but so is spending. Ever-growing financial commitments such as exorbitant coaching salaries and debt service on opulent facilities threaten a school’s financial equilibrium. Perhaps most troubling is that while students and their parents bear the brunt of record tuition increases, rising athletic fees, and what some describe as draconian public education funding cuts, the rate of spending on athletes has far outpaced academic expenditures per student.
But as I told my colleague, I’m not surprised to hear from those who see the odds overwhelmingly stacked against meaningful reform. Indeed, some people argue that college athletics is simply a big business, that we should blow up the current NCAA oversight system and embrace a free market with an each-school-for-itself model where decisions such as what to pay players and who is eligible would all be made locally. Talk about a recipe for even greater chaos.
So why might the time be ripe for educational leaders to come together to more assertively address the challenges of a college sports system that almost everyone agrees needs recalibrating? First, the climate is right. Today higher education receives more scrutiny than ever before, replete with controversial calls to assess quality and outcomes and to apply the resulting metrics to funding decisions. People want to see a clearer connection between financial support for universities and high quality research and teaching. While sports fanatics may yell louder, those who favor support for “academics first” are in the majority.
Second, in the very near future the NCAA will in some way restructure, likely with an emphasis on responding to oversight and fiscal concerns raised by the five power conferences. While there is sure to be discussion about paying athletes and revised revenue-sharing paradigms, this also presents an opportunity to more closely align the conduct of college sports with the primary missions of higher education. Any restructuring model without this link as a central theme is sure to fail over time.
Certainly achieving a more appropriate balance won’t be easy. While individual universities may consider and even implement minor changes at the local level, no one school can go it alone in terms of adopting substantive reforms for fear of becoming competitively irrelevant. Presidents, faculty, and trustees – who at times have been at odds on this issue – must come together to set a national agenda prioritizing educational goals, and then see that agenda through. Anything less shouldn’t be called “college athletics.”