Opinion | A manifesto for a revolution in college sports: revisiting the idea of the student-athlete
Published: Monday, January 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, January 21, 2013 23:01
Ohio State finished a perfect 2012 football season with a 12-0 record, but could not go to a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions imposed for violations incurred under departed coach Jim Tressel.
Fifty-one years earlier the team was denied another bowl bid, but under very different circumstances. In late 1961 the faculty council at Ohio State University voted 28 to 25 against accepting an invitation for its Big Ten championship football team to play UCLA in the 1962 Rose Bowl.
Some faculty members were embarrassed by Ohio State University’s (OSU) reputation as a football school rather than as a respected place of higher learning. “We’re upset over the fact that the image of Ohio State is that the school is merely an appendage to the football team,” said one faculty member. “When we go away for meetings, we’re kidded about this by people from other schools. We don’t dislike football, but the feeling is that things are out of proportion.”
In 1939, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins had reached the same conclusion, and took the drastic step of dropping the football program entirely, despite its storied past under legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. The Ohio State vote was one of the last major faculty protests against the influence of big time athletics on university campuses.
Many Ohioans were outraged with the council’s vote. Buckeye students marched to the state capitol in Columbus, broke windows, turned over cars, and burned effigies of the professors. Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, who had already won the Rose Bowl in 1954 and 1957, calmed passions while taking a dig at the council: “I don’t agree with those 28 ‘no’ votes, but I respect their integrity, if not their intelligence.” The notion of faculty control over bowl bids today is laughable, and college presidents who limit the power and scope of their athletic programs are increasingly rare. Colleges promote successful athletic programs as a way to brand their schools, increase enrollments and solicit wealthy donors. It is a risky gamble to invest millions in a winning basketball or football program as a marketing tool, because there is no guarantee that teams will have consistent success. It is obvious that major Division-I (D-I) sports programs no longer have much to do with the academic mission of their universities. Major college sports are a billion-dollar corporate enterprise that undermines the real purpose of higher education.
A recent study of median per capita spending on athletes and other college students revealed a startling disparity. Spending per student at Big Ten schools was $19,225, while spending per athlete was a whopping $116,667. Playing D-I sports is a full time job, often relegating the athlete’s education to a matter of maintaining eligibility to play.
Surrounded by a phalanx of personal academic counselors and tutors, many athletes choose the same majors and take the same classes that athletic programs know they can pass, and at times of the day that do not conflict with practice schedules. Coaches cannot afford to lose their top athletes to ineligibility, and it rarely happens. These athletes might get a scholarship worth up to $40-50,000 a year, while their coaches at the D-I level take home millions. One study estimated that a star quarterback at a big time football school such as Texas is worth five million dollars to the school annually.
The average yearly salary of a D-I football coach is $1.47 million. Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer makes nearly $4.5 million a year. Given the revenues generated by the OSU football team, Meyer is probably a good investment. But the head football coach is also the highest paid employee at Miami University, whose football team loses at least $2 million every year. Coaches repeatedly break NCAA rules, knowing full well that a winning program can take them to the next higher paying job. If caught they can simply resign, leaving their universities and players to deal with the burden of sanctions. Pete Carroll left the USC football program in shambles in 2010, and landed a multi-million dollar deal with the Seattle Seahawks.
John Calipari’s basketball players at both the University of Massachusetts and the University of Memphis repeatedly ran afoul of the rules, so Calipari left those schools for the University of Kentucky, where he unabashedly exploits the NBA’s rule that high school players have to play one year of college. He does not particularly care about his players’ academic careers; his future NBA first-rounders take a few cupcake classes in the fall semester, but do not have to show up for any of their spring semester courses.
The Caliparis and Carrolls make a mockery of the idea of the “student-athlete.” Even coaches who try to play by the rules are under pressure because their job depends on winning; graduation rates and educating their athletes are luxuries.
What college president or athletic director defends a losing coach by bringing up his or her high graduation rate? The money is just too big. Division I teams have begun a game of musical chairs, changing conferences to find the most lucrative places to play, regardless of geographical proximity and traditional rivalries.
Games are scheduled on any day or night to accommodate the television schedules, which provide D-I teams revenue even if there are few fans in the stands. The NCAA and ESPN schedule-makers pay no attention to the possibility that players have classes during the week. Most teams arrive at least a day before an away game, further disrupting the athlete’s class schedule. Some universities such as Mississippi State and Boston College have even cancelled classes so that students can watch a big mid-week televised football game. Very few colleges at any level run a profitable athletic program; in 2012 only 23 of the 338 D-I universities operated in the black. Miami University subsidizes athletics to the tune of $15 million annually. If OSU actually paid its football or basketball players what they are worth to the school, there would be no money left over to subsidize the rest of OSU’s athletic teams. Some argue that a university’s national television exposure is well worth the cost, but not all teams can win at the D-I level. And do we want students to attend college to become super fans or good scholars? Schools like Miami could take several million dollars from its athletic budget to conduct a national advertising campaign promoting the university’s academic excellence, which would arguably bring better publicity to the school than a Tuesday night ESPN football game against Central Michigan.