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Enjoy Your College Sports, but Let’s Be Honest

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A player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament basketball game in 2012. Photo: Keith Srakocic / Associated Press

By Mark Janas, Ed.D. |

Spoiler alert:  If you choose to continue to believe the purity of college athletics, please stop reading now. Enjoy the CFP.  Enjoy March Madness. I don’t want to be the one to burst your bubble. 

The worst kept secret in all of NCAA Division 1 revenue sports is that those sports have devolved into the de facto minor leagues for professional basketball and football.  The NCAA is being disingenuous at best to suggest anything otherwise.   

Education is not a priority for these sports.  In fact, it’s mostly a diversion.  Of course, if you watch the commercials, you’ve seen the NCAA attempt to mask the issue by “averaging” D1 football and basketball athletes in with other student athletes, but we’re hip to that, right?

Here’s the cold, hard truth.  The NCAA is generating BILLIONS of dollars in broadcast rights.  They have no incentive to change the current system.  The NBA and NFL, without spending a dime, are being handed athletes worth billions of dollars by the NCAA.  They have no incentive to change anything.  And, corporate America, the media, and the vast majority of most alumni and casual fans are just fine with how things are going. 

But, if we’re all going to be fine with it, let’s at least be honest about it, and maybe even implement a few solutions that acknowledge the situation for what it is.  First, let’s look at some data and facts.  Research has found the following:

  • The preferred admission of recruited athletes results in admitting students who had significantly lower standardized test scores than those of their classmates.
  • The recruitment of athletes does not significantly affect racial diversity at colleges.
  • Recruited male and female athletes have a significant and increasing advantage in the admissions process. (Recruited athletes that coaches identified for preferred admissions are up to four times more likely to be admitted than were other applicants.)
  • Recruited athletes under-perform academically relative to their classmates and receive far lower grades than did other athletes and students.
  • Recruited athletes have significanty lower SAT scores than those of other athletes and students.
  • Recruited athletes focused more on their sports at the expense of academics.

Then we have those pesky Knight Commission findings.  According to a survey of faculty members at FBS schools:

  • College sports focus on entertainment with little regard for academics.
  • College athletes overall are serious about their academic work and earning their degrees, but faculty members are less satisfied with the academic performance of football and basketball players.
  • Nearly one-third believe academic standards have to be compromised to achieve success in athletics.
  • Nearly three-quarters believe salaries of head coaches of football and basketball teams are excessive.
  • Nearly one-half believe that football and basketball players are not fairly compensated for their contributions.

To address these problems there are have been a variety of proposals floating around over the years, including eliminating preferred admissions for athletes, eliminating freshman eligibility, shortening practices and competitive seasons, eliminating athlete-only academic support services to athletes, and holding coaches accountable for athletes’ academic achievement.  But, these have been given “lip service” at best, mainly because they don’t address the incentives of the primary stakeholders.

So, what are some honest solutions that do address these incentives?  (Buckle up, these might be a touch controversial.)

  • Implement a blind admission process for all athletes IF they are to be formally accepted into a college.  (The operating word here is “if”.  See #2 below for the alternative.)  Use any other criteria, other than athletic prowess to admit students.  It should be a requirement that college athletes meet at least the AVERAGE academic standards NOT the MINIMUM standards at a particular institution.  It is unrealistic to expect a below average student to keep up academically given the time they have to invest in their sport.   Frankly, these athletes should have to meet the ABOVE AVERAGE admission standards, but I won’t get greedy.
  • Allow the athletes the option to play under a particular school’s “banner” for up to 4 years without formal admission to the school.  Yes, this is controversial, but the schools wouldn’t be off the hook with this proposal.  They would be responsible for covering a 4-year ACADEMIC scholarship at any school for which the player is qualified and accepted AFTER their college football career is finished.   
  • Lock athletic scholarships down for 4 years, no matter how long a player stays at a particular school. If you’re tired of the same dozen or so schools dominating football and basketball, this solves it for you by creating more parity in the game.  The same schools won’t be allowed to load up on “one and done” five-star players each year because they won’t have enough scholarships to do that.  Related, don’t call them “athletic” scholarships anymore.  They all should be “academic” scholarships.
  • Pay each player in D1 revenue sports a modest wage. (Think NBA G League wages.) Further, put no restrictions on their ability to capitalize on their image and likeness.
  • Related to #4, exempt D1 football and basketball from the Title IX discussion completely, except as they impact the total number of ACADEMIC scholarships given to men and women.   D1 college football and basketball programs aren’t about education anymore.  They are marketing arms for their respective institutions, and they should be treated as such. Despite what most people think, most of these programs lose money each year anyway. 
  • Eliminate all recruiting of high school athletes by college coaches and scouts.  Sounds crazy?  It shouldn’t.   A high school student and athlete and his (or her) high school coach are best equipped to make decisions based about their academic and athletic qualifications.  They should make first contact with programs in which they’re interested.   You solve other problems here too.  Recruiting wars are costly for all schools involved.  Boosters and sneaker companies could still muddy up the “first contact” waters for sure, but their role in the big picture process would fundamentally change anyway as these athletes eventually are going to be allowed to earn money without compromising their eligibility.  (As a nice side bonus, maybe the FBI could then focus on real problems in the world, like fighting terrorism and government corruption, rather than worry about how high school kids are recruited.)

Admittedly, these are controversial proposals that would change D1 revenue sports to the core, but they’re honest solutions to problems that few people want to be honest about.  I make no judgment in this piece as to whether the NCAA is equipped to manage these solutions, although I would suggest that managing minor league sports is a completely different proposition than running collegiate athletics.  

I’ll now go off and bury my own head in the sand as I watch my favorite college team play and pretend it’s not minor league sports.

Mark Janas, BS, MBA, EdD is the founder of In3 Investments, LLC, a technology and business development firm with holdings in several sport-related businesses. Dr. Janas also teaches in the Sport Management program at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, NC.  He is currently developing esports-related content for the program and is part of the effort to start the first HBCU collegiate cycling team in the country.

1 COMMENT

  1. One thing to add, is that fans also believe the college players are “theirs.” In reality, these players are mercenaries recruited from out of state (or country). Once I saw a women’s gymnastic meet between Arizona and Arizona State. Of the two teams (22 athletes) how many were actually from Arizona? Three. Sometimes I do feel silly saying the Hoosiers are better than them Buckeyes, when Indiana does not have a player from Indiana on their team, or Ohio State doesn’t have any Ohio boys on their team either. I guess it is just easier than to cheer “Go two Californians, one Texan, one Georgian, and that guy from Croatia!”

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