Recent scandals here at UNC, Penn State, Syracuse, and more have raised the profile of concerns and criticism about college athletics. Meanwhile–and in large part on a different track–various high-profile commentators including Taylor Branch and Joe Nocera have been arguing that revenue college athletes (men’s basketball and football) should be considered employees and paid for their athletic service, and even the NCAA has taken a tentative, baby step in that direction, albeit disclaiming the principle. My UNC colleague Richard Southall has recently written two columns that examine the likelihood that legal developments could mean universities will be forced to pay athletes as employees and consider how universities might implement such a change.
It occurs to me that the critiques of the current operation of college athletics are in some ways in conflict with one another. As a professor, I am concerned about pressures for academic double standards; academic misconduct facilitated by athletic-department staff; compromising academic quality in order to pursue athletic championships; privileging athletes over other students in distributing scarce resources like seats in popular classes; demands placed on instructors who have athletes in classes; and distracting university administrators and resources away from the pressing needs of academic missions. In other words: I worry about threats athletics pose to universities.
By contrast, the Branch-Nocera-Southall critiques are concerned about the demands placed on athletes; the difficulty they face balancing the demands of athletics with those of academic life; the physical and employability risks they encounter. In other words: They worry about threats universities pose to athletes.
People I’ve spoken to who more-or-less defend the current system characterize it sort of a grand bargain: universities consent to some degree of compromise of intellectual quality in exchange for positive links with fans and donors who aren’t otherwise connected. Athletes consent to financial exploitation and academic drudgery in exchange for opportunities for big-time exposure, possible high-paying pro careers, and some assurance that boosters will help them out if pro sports doesn’t work out for them. Non-athlete students and faculty consent to privileges offered to athletes in exchange for entertainment and school spirit.
Southall is by any measure a national expert in this area, and I find his critique of the treatment of athletes–and his expectation that revenue athletes will be classified as employees in the not-too-distant future–compelling (though the Euclidean geometry analogy is strained at best). But unlike Southall, I am very worried about the implications of such a change. Yes, as Southall points out:
if such a quantum shift occurs, western civilization, as we know it, will not crumble; the sun will, most likely, continue to set in the west; and the Law of Gravity will still describe a jump shot’s trajectory.
Now, I can’t confess to having read as widely as Southall has in this area, but I haven’t run across anyone suggesting that these would be the negative results of (further) professionalizing college athletics. But I do think it will exacerbate the already-problematic amount of money involved in athletics and, by extension, the degree of academic compromise demanded by athletics. The athletic tail would be allowed even more to wag the academic dog, and that would be a bad thing.
Southall envisions a regime wherein revenue athletics would be “separate corporate entities,” but associated with the university in some way. They would contract with players, providing salary, contracts, lifetime health insurance, and education as a “benefit.” I’m not sure why education should be understood as a “benefit” instead of, as we now understand it, a sine qua non: The University of North Carolina does not employ as athletes people who are not also students. We also don’t do so for various other kinds of support, e.g., teaching and research assistants.
Meanwhile, “universities would still be free to provide non-entertainment athletic opportunities for students in non-revenue sports.” Would universities be allowed to charge for admission to these sports? How much admission before the sport would cross the line and have to be jettisoned by the university and moved to the separate corporate entity? This strikes me as an impossible wall to maintain. Would spectators be barred from women’s basketball, lacrosse, and track and field because these are to be “non-entertainment”?
Also, note: unlike the current professional leagues, many of the largest employers would be state government agencies, and the collective bargaining regimes for these are very heterogeneous across states, including some important ones (North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, and increasingly Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana) where collective bargaining by public employees is to a large extent illegal under existing or pending law. So I think some of the predictions and approaches are probably harder to implement than Southall expects.
How about a much more modest alternative: universities admit only athletes who meet true minimum academic requirements, and agree to live within reasonable practice and travel schedules that make being an athlete more similar to other things students do outside class (volunteer work, political activity, artistic endeavor, etc.). Universities provide adequate real educational services (not services to paper over deficiencies, but services to actually educate). To the extent that the athletics enterprise as a whole generates income above and beyond expenses, a revenue-sharing agreement allows athletes to collect shares of that surplus. This need not be enforced either legally or through the NCAA, but could quite reasonably be a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” pledge that universities sign.
These restrictions might ultimately lower the market price of DI coaches, which would be fine, and might also lower the overall quality of play, which would be fine. I like Southall’s idea of education “credits” that athletes could bank and return to campus to use later, though I think in practice this is already often the case.
One of the critiques that has been raised is that athletes essentially must play in college in order to be noticed by the pros in basketball and football. College athletics, that is, functions as a de facto farm league for the NBA and NFL. By contrast, there are real farm leagues for Major League Baseball and hockey, which may account for the fact that these are less spectacular sports for colleges. Honestly, I don’t see why that’s universities’ problem. NBA and NFL are free to form their own farm leagues, and it’s certainly not in any university’s mission statement that we seek to develop athletic talent for professional teams.
My bottom line is this: I care far more about protecting the core academic missions of universities–major social institutions whose health and integrity I consider very important–than I do about protecting relatively few athletes who are themselves highly specialized, skilled individuals whose short- and long-term careers are not part of the university’s central mission. I think college athletics–revenue and not–can be a great benefit to universities, athletes, and non-athlete students alike, but I think the primary consideration has to be focusing on the core academic mission of the university.
Of course many universities do lots of things that are not in the core academic mission. They put on plays; they display art; they publish books; they maintain gardens and natural lands; they maintain radio stations; and more. The principles I’ve suggested here, I think, apply to all these other pursuits: they should be subsumed under the core academic mission and should not be allowed to drive or undermine that mission.