Arne Duncan was just a year into his secretaryship of the U.S. department of education in January 2010 when he parachuted into an NCAA annual meeting and laced college sports leaders with a barrage of criticisms for what he saw as their unethical, if not immoral, treatment of college athletes. He said collusion with the NBA on an age restriction set up kids for failure. He said allowing coaches to leave one program in a shambles only to gain a new, more lucrative job elsewhere taught the wrong lesson.
Yet, he was most lathered about college sports officials not following through on their threat to keep teams with lousy graduation rates from picking up extra royalties in the lucrative basketball postseason from the blood and sweat of athletes they promised to educate and reward with college degrees.
By the next NCAA convention a year later, the organization raised its graduation minimums for teams to play in college basketball’s billion-dollar month of tournaments, called March Madness. As a result, in 2013, the Connecticut men’s basketball team, a perennial powerhouse which then was on a run of 11 NCAA tournaments since 1999 with four championships, became the first major school not allowed to play in a tournament because of its failure to graduate players that were bringing it tens of millions of dollars a year.
“To me, that’s the problem that I just always keep coming back to,” Duncan, who in January resigned from President Obama’s Cabinet, told me during a telephone conversation late last month from his Chicago home. “It is that every study shows that if you receive your college degree, that’s worth north of a million dollars in terms of lifetime earnings. That’s transformative.
“If you’re really trying to help a student athlete, the most important thing you can do is get them that piece of paper, have them march across the stage.”
That is sports as social justice.
I called Duncan after seeing in late January that he was named a co-vice chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a reform-minded independent panel of influential minds in and around sports in higher education chaired by University of Maryland chancellor emeritus Brit Kirwan. I wanted to know what Duncan, who last month signed a book and speaking contract with L.A.-based Creative Artists Agency, thought he could do for college sports out of government that he couldn’t, or didn’t, do from inside government.
“It’s a way for me . . . to hopefully have an impact in an area that I think has so much potential for good, to be transformative in a positive way,” said Duncan. “Too often [for] the student athlete, their best interests isn’t thought about, they’re taken advantage of.”
Duncan’s thought reminded me of the 20-year-old tell-all by the architect of the modern NCAA, Walter Byers, titled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.”
But Duncan said he wasn’t ready yet to join the lawsuits aimed at college sports’ inequitable financial structure, or any pay-for-play or unionization efforts surrounding its revenue-generating games of football and men’s basketball. He said his aim was just to make those who run college sports, and get rich doing so, more accountable for what they’re ostensibly working on a college campus for — educating teenagers to become successful young adults. How to do that? Duncan said he wants to change the incentive structure in the game, which currently rewards success on the scoreboard but not so much for the number of mortarboards.
“Very few incentives for coaches, for ADs, for college presidents, that are set by board of directors, have to do with student athletes’ success,” Duncan said. “They all have to do with wins and losses on the field, or on the basketball court. It’s misaligned.
“To totally reward and incentivize adults, be they coaches or ADs, to win, and to put the academic well-being of the student athlete second, or not even close, to me that’s the fundamental crux of the problem that I want to get to.”
Duncan said he was surprised by research his friend Tom McMillen, the former basketball star from Maryland who wound up a Rhodes Scholar and politician, found in analyzing college coaches’ contracts. For most of the contracts, Duncan said, upwards of 95 percent of the pay was tied to athletic performance.
“It’s [college athletics] got to be value based. It can’t be revenue based. And right now revenue is driving everything,” Duncan said.
By Kevin Blackistone from The Washington Post, republished with permission, original article.