So far this year, some of the biggest headlines in college sports have had little to do with what happens on the gridiron or hardwood.
Louisville’s men’s basketball coach was suspended because a team employee hired a stripper to have sex with recruits and players. The University of Mississippi faces a raft of allegations, including boosters showering athletes with cash and car loans, academic cheating, and an ill-advised phone call by the football coach to an escort service.
And at Baylor, a lawsuit asserted that more than 30 football players committed 52 rapes over four years, adding a sickening new dimension to a sexual assault scandal that has already seen athletes arrested, the coach fired, and the university president resign.
There will be more such outrages. You can bank on it.
How did we get to this place at our institutions of higher learning, where education, the law, and even basic morality take a back seat to the smash-mouth needs of the multibillion-dollar commercial enterprise known, quaintly, as intercollegiate athletics? The truth is, we’ve always been here.
From its earliest days in the 19th century, football, in particular, has reshaped the American college experience like nothing else. It came thundering out of the storied campuses of Ivy League schools, initially leaving a trail of dead and injured players, complaints about vice and corruption of the game, and growing conflicts with the academic mission of colleges. Only intervention by President Theodore Roosevelt stemmed some of the physical toll on athletes with the creation of new standards for safer play.
However, broader problems in that evolving world of college athletics remained unaddressed. Today, the roots of those problems stretch far and deep, drawing sustenance from cultural and business imperatives that were condemned as far back as 1929, in a Carnegie Foundation study, as the “darkest blot upon American college sport.” That early inquiry found rampant corruption in recruiting, creeping commercialism, and misplaced priorities on the part of college presidents under the spell of big-time athletics.
Sixty years later, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found things had only gotten worse, nourished by a river of television revenue that amplified the basest instincts of everyone involved. The head of the commission concluded, in 1991, that “sanity had to be restored to this bleak scene and values put back into their proper place.”
College sports officials know this but are too compromised to enact real change. This is made clear in internal National Collegiate Athletic Association documents revealed in a 2009 lawsuit by former players, who argued that they were functioning as unpaid entertainers while everyone around them profited. In their own words, when they thought no one else was listening, NCAA officials sent e-mails to each other admitting things like: “As we callous our collective consciences to the incremental intrusion of commercialism, ‘No, you can’t do that’ begins to be heard less often.”
This only makes sense if you accept that big-time college sports exists as an end unto itself. Certainly it has its benefits. It gives local fans something to cheer, students and alumni feel good about their teams, and, for a select few schools, there are monetary and institutional rewards. But for the most part, it is simply an entertainment platform, broadcast to millions of viewers who have no attachment to the schools and directed by well-paid professionals whose mission is to grind out wins.
In Kentucky and Mississippi — two of the poorest states in the country — the athletic programs at Louisville and Ole Miss each took in more than $110 million last year. The NCAA’s Division I generated more than $8 billion, most of it flowing tax-free from television giants, corporate sponsors, and wealthy boosters into schools where it pays for the salaries of coaches and college presidents, luxury skyboxes, and tutors for illiterate players. Along the way, this collegiate-athletics complex and its supporters in Congress have bullied the IRS and rewritten the tax code to preserve the fiction that it is all a tax-exempt educational pursuit, instead of a nakedly commercial enterprise.
Which brings us back to those unsavory headlines. The mind-boggling financial stakes naturally lead to ethical compromises and the cutting of corners. Much of it occurs outside of public view, in the incremental decisions of administrators to trim academic budgets while borrowing millions for new stadiums, raise athletic fees for all students, and lower admissions standards for star recruits. At its worst, you have academic cheating scandals and the cover-ups of crimes ranging from drunk driving to rape — all poison to the carefully tended reputation of a school.
What’s the answer? Treating athletes as paid professionals, and dropping the pretense that they’re in school for a meaningful education, would be a start. If nothing else, it would remove the incentive for academic fraud and financial crimes by players and boosters. Another option would be creating a minor-league system for football and basketball, as currently exists for baseball.
Meanwhile, limiting the obscene amounts of money involved is an obvious, if elusive, target. Internal NCAA documents show that one of the organization’s biggest fears is losing tax-exempt status for college sports, which would suck billions of dollars out of the enterprise and weaken the impetus for bad behavior all around.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for change. A president of Duke University, William Preston Few, once proposed to “abolish the gate receipts” at football games to remove the profit incentive that he believed was fueling “evils and dangers in college sports.”
Dr. Few made that proposal in 1906. It went nowhere.
Mike McIntire is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. This article is adapted from his book “Champions Way: Football, Florida, and the Lost Soul of College Sports.”