When the NCAA announced it was embarking on significant reform, it presented an opening for others to present their own reform ideas. When plans for reform started piling up from faculty members looking to rein in college athletics and the media and student-athlete advocates arguing for the professionalization of college athletics, it was not out of the realm of possibility that the NCAA would become the victim of its own reform movement. But a recent and disturbing trend is attacking something more basic and fundamental than the NCAA. Rather than going after the NCAA as an organism, would-be reformers are challenging the cells themselves: the athletic department.
Oddly enough, it was a student-athlete advocacy group, the National College Players Association that first lent credence to the idea:
The FBS non-revenue team expenses show that these schools spend far more than what’s necessary to field these teams. BCS schools spend an average of about $350,000 more on each non-revenue team when compared to FCS schools. FBS schools average 18 non-revenue generating teams per campus, which means they spend an average of about $6.3 million/year more than FCS schools on non-revenue generating sports. Schools often question where they would find the money to increase athletic scholarships. But to put this in perspective, if those excess expenditures were evenly divided among 85 scholarship football players and 13 scholarship basketball players, each player would receive about $64,000 without reducing any non-revenue generating players’ scholarship or their teams.
Jay Bilas asks about representation of not just athletes from revenue sports, but elite athletes from revenue sports:
Just one athlete per working group does not seem to allow the athlete much of a voice in the process, and one can reasonably question whether the actual experience of the typical “revenue-producing” athlete is fairly represented, let alone the views of the elite revenue-producing athlete.
The NCPA and Bilas nibble at the edges. Cutting back on non-scholarship expenses and ensuring that football and men’s basketball athletes with professional prospects are represented are one thing and raise serious questions about what the role of athletics should be in a university. But what Frank Deford is arguing is something else entirely:
I’m all for the wonderful intrinsic values of sport: exercise and competition and team spirit, but especially in these parlous economic times, it would make much more monetary sense to conduct minor college sports on an intramural basis. Would the universities’ educational mission be diminished any by that decision? Would good student applicants reject them for lack of league lacrosse games? Come on.
This sounds like it could have been written by one of the professors from Rutgers that had their phone service cut off, as Deford mentions. This does not:
All the worse, the current national model has it that some impoverished kid from the inner city risks concussions and obesity to play football in order to pay for the scholarship of a javelin thrower and the salary of an assistant swimming coach and the plane fare for the volleyball team.
Let’s address these ideas one by one.
No one is suggesting that athletic subsidies are not controversial and should not be approached cautiously. But for professors facing budget cuts and students going deeper into debt to while athletics keeps or increases subsidies, does it matter where the money goes? I doubt it makes the student or the instructors feel better when they are asked to do more with less if the money flows to the football program rather than the women’s basketball team.
As far student-athlete representation, it is the representation of elite athletes rather than representation of all athletes that would make a major difference. In his wildly popular and well-reviewed critique of the NCAA, Taylor Branch offered giving student-athletes a 20% vote as a change that would have wide-ranging impact on many facets of college athletics. Except last year, even if student-athletes had more votes than the Big Ten, Pac–12, and SEC combined, there was no legislative issue where that many votes would have changed the outcome and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s position differed from the Legislative Council’s final vote. To get major change, that 20% vote would need to represent only the opinions of a tiny fraction of student-athletes.
When someone pitches the idea of defunding nonrevenue sports or reverting them to intramural status, it undermines their claim that they believe in the value of elite athletic competition. High-level athletics either have intrinsic and/or academic value or they do not. To suggest that the only athletes and sports deserving of investment by universities are those that can produce revenue strips athletics of any intrinsic value, just like saying the only majors a college should offer are ones that draw enough donations and research dollars to support themselves.
This is what President Mark Emmert meant when he said college athletics are not a business. Changing conferences to grow revenue might make business sense, but not if that money is used to keep the wrestling team from being cut or to fully fund scholarships for rowers. President Emmert’s comment was somewhat aspirational, as he acknowledged the frenzy of the deal seemed to be overtaking more important considerations.
Even Division I members struggle with this issue. A lot of administrative furniture is being hastily rearranged to increase the maximum value of a scholarship. This will primarily benefit athletes who are already receiving full scholarships in sports with the largest budgets. But Division I financial aid rules still require a student-athlete who is not getting already getting tuitions, fees, room, board and books to give up aid that has nothing to do with athletics because [it counts against team limits]. It is an issue that Division I has gone back and forth on as much as cost-of-attendance, but which occurs is under the radar since it rarely, if ever, affects football or men’s basketball. That discussion is being put on hold for now in order to provide more for revenue sport athletes.
As often as college athletics is taken to task for looking like a profit-seeking enterprise, it gets chastised just as often for not acting like a business. As the NCAA seeks to blend higher education with elite athletics that people just so happen to be [willing to pay a lot of money to watch], there will always be that tension.
The goal of Division I should be to constantly expand and improve athletic and educational opportunities for student-athletes. That means all student-athletes. It means not resting on the laurels of the full grant-in-aid or APR. By the same token, it means bringing more and more sports up to the same level of financial aid and support that the revenue sports enjoy. But what it absolutely does not mean is dismantling or gutting athletic departments to feed two teams.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.