(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the New York Times website on August 9 and in the print edition on August 10 at page B13. Jonathan Mahler is a noted author and speaker on a range of topics, including sport issues. The link here will take readers to the complete article on the New York Times website.)
Joseph Agnew was once a Friday night superstar. A defensive back, he led his Texas high school football team to consecutive state titles in 2004 and 2005. He was also an A student.
Agnew went on to Rice, a first-rate university with an improving football program. But things didn’t quite work out for him, at least football-wise. The coach who had recruited him left after his freshman year. Agnew struggled to find playing time and had a string of injuries. After his sophomore season, he was cut from the team. The next year, he lost his scholarship and later left Rice.
I relate Agnew’s story to help explain why the term student-athlete has become a punch line. And it has become a punch line. In a recent “South Park” episode, the scheming Eric Cartman character, in plantation owner’s garb, drops in on a college president for some advice on how to avoid paying slaves. (“Stu-dent ath-o-leets! Oh, that is brilliant, suh!”)
It’s never a good sign when you’re getting satirized on “South Park.” If you’re the N.C.A.A., it may be an even worse sign when the commissioner of your most notorious conference, the Southeastern Conference’s Mike Slive, issues a call for reform. Rupert Murdoch might as well propose an overhaul of the business of news gathering.
Against this backdrop, the president of the N.C.A.A., Mark Emmert, summoned the leaders of 50 or so Division I colleges to Indianapolis this week for a two-day retreat. No longer able to ignore the widespread scandals that have been piling up faster than linemen on a fumble, Emmert was talking big in advance of the meeting. “A few new tweaks of the rules won’t get the job done,” he said.
A few new tweaks of the rules is all anyone is expecting. We’ve heard these calls to action before. Yet the status quo — a dysfunctional system that exploits athletes and damages the integrity of universities — has endured.
Change, when it has come, has been imposed against maximum resistance, whether it was the A.C.L.U.’s forcing Southern schools to desegregate their teams, or Title IX, the legislation that revolutionized women’s sports. (Agnew has initiated a lawsuit against the N.C.A.A., challenging the rule that enabled Rice to revoke his scholarship.)
But what if this time things were different?
What if Emmert and these university leaders took a good look around at our educational landscape — the drastic cuts in funding to state universities and federal student loans, the disappearing endowments — and realized they didn’t have to be part of the problem? They could be part of the solution.
They could start by declaring freshmen ineligible for intercollegiate sports to encourage them to focus on their classwork. They could take the scholarship status of athletes out of the hands of coaches, who have the power to cut off a player with a 4.0 grade point average but a bum knee. Most of all, they could place strict limits on full-contact football practices, a step recently taken by the Ivy League, so the minds they’re developing in the classroom aren’t being hastened toward dementia on the field.
This is just the beginning. The real strides would come when universities declared a truce in the arms race of new athletics facilities and agreed to cap the soaring pay of coaches. Earlier this summer, John Calipari signed a contract extension with Kentucky that guarantees him $3.8 million a year — nearly 10 times what the president of an average state university makes.
Better yet, why not compel football and basketball programs to contribute a modest percentage of their revenue to their universities’ primary mission, education? These programs are heavily dependent on their universities. They leverage their brands, use their facilities and take up more than their share of their administrations’ time. (How do you think the Ohio State president, E. Gordon Gee, spent his summer? Reviewing course offerings, or dealing with the Jim Tressel mess?)
We’re taking about huge sums. According to a database created by USA Today, Ohio State’s athletics program brought in more than $123 million in 2009-10, nearly every penny of which was fed back into the athletic department.
What if a fraction of that money was earmarked for academic scholarships instead?
Yes, I realize how naïve I sound. But the reality is that this game of one-upmanship is causing some universities to lose money on their athletic programs. If you’re not Ohio State or Michigan or a handful of other universities, the cost of trying to compete can be crippling. Perversely, some Division I schools have taken to plundering their general funds to cover shortfalls in their athletic budgets, even as they close academic departments, lay off instructors and raise fees.
As a rule, the less glamorous the college, the higher the percentage of students receiving Pell grants — and the more the college has to lay out to prevent its athletic department from going broke. Think of big-time sports programs as a regressive tax on the universities that can least afford it.
One popular defense of these programs is that they help subsidize smaller sports like swimming, rowing and soccer. But expenses for those sports are tiny by comparison. (Keep in mind, there are assistant football coaches making close to $1 million a year.)
Critics say that if you strip athletics departments of control over student-athletes and divert resources from sports, you’ll wind up driving away potential stars, producing less accomplished athletes and making college sports less compelling. John Wall would probably never have made a one-year stopover in Lexington if he wasn’t going to be eligible as a freshman. But a vast majority of college athletes, even highly regarded recruits like Joseph Agnew, go to college not only to be noticed by pro scouts but to receive an education.
More to the point, these critics are missing the real allure of college sports. Students, alumni and local boosters were filling college football stadiums long before the building boom of 20,000-square-foot “strength complexes.” Alabama fans don’t care if their tailback does a 4.3 40 or a 4.6 40, as long as Alabama beats Auburn. As Joe Paterno likes to say, it’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters, not the one on the back.
We all want to see great players do great things, at any level of sports. But that’s not the only reason we watch.
There is seemingly no piece of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament that hasn’t been auctioned to the highest bidder — there’s even a sponsor for the ladders that the winners scale to cut down the nets — yet it remains the most compelling annual event in all of American sports, not because the participants might be mistaken for Dirk or LeBron, but because of the once-in-a-lifetime emotional abandon with which they play.
Sure, it’s a thrill to see future N.B.A. stars like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony perform as “amateur athletes.” But is it any less exciting to watch guys like Tyler Hansbrough and Sherron Collins?
Think about those rows of players clasping hands on the bench as they watch their teammates desperately try to stave off elimination and ask yourself why you love March Madness. A vast majority of these men will never set foot on the floor of an N.B.A. arena. This is it, their final moment on stage before their physical limitations turn them into former athletes. Goodbye, Columbus.
What if colleges didn’t just provide them with a stage for their performances, but prepared them for their exit from it? And what if they aspired to make the legacy of this multibillion-dollar entertainment industry more than just entertainment?
My guess is that it would be just as entertaining. At this particular moment, I don’t see how anyone can justify doing anything less.