(Note: The following column by League of Fans’ sports policy director Ken Reed recently appeared in the Boulder (CO) Daily Camera)

The University of Miami might eventually receive the NCAA’s “death penalty” following the recently revealed major scandal involving the school’s athletic program but that’s not going to change anything in big-time college sports.

It’s time to face reality. Today’s system of intercollegiate athletics isn’t fixable.

The reason? At its core, it’s an ill-conceived sports model; one filled with hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy is the result of an untenable system that promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that the young athletes that fill the seats at football stadiums and basketball arenas on our college campuses have significant market value.

The hypocrisy also derives from the education myth. Big-time college sports programs are primarily about professionalism and commercialism, not education. Athletic directors and coaches at our biggest universities aren’t educators in any traditional sense; they are CEOs of huge business enterprises. How else to explain that they are hired and fired almost exclusively based on revenue generated and win-loss records?

The reality of big-time college football and basketball is this: It’s a plantation system, one in which coaches, administrators, conference commissioners, sports media executives and broadcasters get rich, while the players are given a dorm room, a cafeteria pass, and an opportunity to get an education they may or may not be interested in.

So, how can we make the system more ethical and honest? There are two major steps that need to be taken.

First, the most highly commercialized sports programs (primarily football and men’s basketball) at our big-time college sports factories (e.g., schools in the BCS conferences) must have their non-profit tax-exempt status pulled and be reclassified as for-profit business subsidiaries under the university umbrella. In effect, universities would be sponsoring for-profit sports clubs on their campuses. All universities taking this route would form an alliance with their like-minded peers, in effect creating a for-profit college sports association apart from the NCAA.

This for-profit association would determine the rules these schools would operate under, including compensation regulations (a salary cap of some type likely would need to be established). A “player’s union” would undoubtedly be formed to negotiate things such as medical coverage and safety concerns.

Scholarships could be part of the player’s compensation package, however, in this for-profit model athletes wouldn’t be required to be enrolled students in order to be eligible to play. Pursuing a college education would be optional while they competed in their sport. This would be a more honest system, eliminating academic fraud possibilities. These athletes could also be given the option of using their scholarship to undertake college studies at a later date, perhaps when their playing days were over.

The second step would be to eliminate athletic scholarships for all varsity college sports programs choosing not to go the for-profit route. In other words, today’s NCAA Division III rules would be applied to all varsity college sports programs that weren’t part of the for-profit association. This would include the so-called Olympic sports, e.g., swimming, tennis, soccer, gymnastics, track, lacrosse, etc., and also the football and basketball programs at smaller schools that didn’t want to play at the for-profit level.

In effect, athletes in programs at this level would be treated like every other student on campus. Financial aid would be based on need or academic merit. Athletics would simply be an adjunct to the school’s educational mission and athletes would be expected to be committed students first, athletes second. This isn’t as radical as it might seem. Athletic scholarships were banned by the NCAA for the first 50 years of the organization’s existence.

Under this revamped college sports model, students coming out of high school with the desire to continue playing sports would have multiple options. One, they could simply play intramural sports or join a student-run club team in college. Two, they could attempt to make a “no-scholarship” college varsity sports team. Three, if they had the talent, and a desire to be financially compensated for their athletic ability, they could sign with a college-sponsored for-profit sports team. Or four, they could try to go directly to the NFL, NBA, professional minor leagues, or explore overseas options.

Continuing to try and tweak the current system in college athletics simply won’t work. We have decades of examples of failed college sports reform measures because those measures never adequately addressed the commercialism inherent in big-time college sports and ignored the strong marketplace demand for star football and basketball players coming out of high school.

What’s needed is radical change. Now.


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