Sharing the pie: practical reforms for NCAA sports—Part 2 | Sports
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Friday, September 16, 2011

Sharing the pie: practical reforms for NCAA sports—Part 2

Posted by on Fri, Sep 16, 2011 at 3:43 PM

A Duke player during warms-up during a preseason practice last month.
This is Part 2 of an essay in which the author proposes modest, achievable reforms that could address inequities in the perennially troubled system of college athletics. Part 1 is here.

4. Provide an increased stipend in the scholarship sports, access to a savings bond upon graduation and the ability to share in revenues from use of player names and imaging in NCAA marketing, including licensing of images and names in video games.

The thrust of this proposal is two-fold. First, college players should have a large enough stipend to be able to meet their basic needs and fit in socially in college. Numerous journalists and coaches have endorsed the idea, and suggested anywhere between $250 and $500 a month as a reasonable figure. At the very least, a stipend would reduce the temptation of athletes—and those with whom they are in contact—to break NCAA rules for relatively small amounts of money.

Second, players in the revenue activities should have a share in the enormous stream of money generated by big-time college sports. There are good reasons not to want college athletes to be able to offer their services on the open market—that would quickly lead to the professionalization of college sports, and likely lead many schools to finally get out of the game rather than try to keep up with those schools willing to pay the most. It’s also hard to believe players who were getting paid serious money would be invested in their academic work. In short, if players are paid, the odd but well-established legitimacy that intercollegiate athletics have on college campuses would quickly evaporate.

This does not mean that players are not entitled to a piece of the pie they help bake every season. But to avoid a bidding war between schools, and to abide by Title IX regulations forbidding institutions from treating men and women unequally, the money needs to come from the NCAA or from other outside sources.

Here are two ways that could happen. First, the NCAA could set aside 10 percent of the gross revenue from its annual television contract on the men’s basketball tournament, amounting to roughly $50 million a year. Now suppose that the NCAA allowed all graduating men’s basketball players—regardless of contribution to their team, or whether or not their team made the tournament—to claim a share of that revenue upon graduation (i.e. successful completion of the academic program). Now assume that the 300-plus schools playing Division I basketball graduate a total of 1,000 players each year. Under this proposal, each of those graduates would be entitled to $50,000 from the NCAA pool.

Enough to make one rich for life? No, but this would be a substantial boost in getting a start in post-college life. It would also provide a clear incentive for athletes to do their schoolwork and graduate. And it would assure that those who put in the sweat, effort and hectic schedules for the greater glory of their school for four years would not walk away empty-handed.

Note that this is a basketball proposal. The NCAA has not participated in the televised football revenue stream since colleges and conferences were freed to negotiate broadcast deals on their own in the wake of the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision in NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma. But the establishment of an NCAA football tournament would create a similar revenue stream to benefit football players.

The second route to getting athletes paid is by compensating them for use of their image and names in marketing materials, from uniforms to video games. Notoriously, college players get nothing from the enormously popular NCAA football video game franchise published by Electronic Arts each summer, even though the game contains replica models of each player’s appearance and an approximation of their ability, and even though a 15-second download allows users to obtain a user-created file in which all the names have been edited to match the players’ real names.

Again, there are reasons why permitting individual players to sell their names and likenesses on the open market would be a bad idea—it would quickly lead to out-and-out professionalism. What’s needed is a more collective approach, in which all players are enrolled in an organization—a union, if you will—that negotiates on their behalf to obtain compensation for the use of these images, then distributes those revenues to all “union members” equally.

5. Require players to pass two college classes prior to beginning practice in their sport, and to complete one semester of college work with a 2.0 or higher average to begin competing in that sport.

The last proposal focused on reducing the exploitation of college athletes. Now we take a different tack: making sure that the players who take the field are who the universities claim they are—students getting a college education.

Here I have one simple idea: College athletes should prove they can be college students before they hit the playing field. Specifically, they must pass two college-level classes with at least a 2.0 GPA before participating in any practice in their sport, and they cannot be eligible for competition until they have completed a full semester with four course credits and at least a 2.0 GPA.

This is a modest proposal that would not lead to major disruptions. Many football and basketball players already attend summer school prior to their freshman years, and many football players redshirt outright. The bigger adjustment might be in basketball, since freshmen would not be eligible to play until mid-December under this rule—a rule which could also have the salutary effect of pushing the beginning of basketball season back to its traditional Dec. 1 start date.

Rather, the rule is envisioned as a step back in the direction of freshman ineligibility—the quaint idea that 18-year-olds should be given time to handle being a student and an athlete before being pushed in front of the bright lights. That idea still has merit; so does the idea of making players prove they are doing in the classroom before they represent the university on the field.

As to the broader academic integrity issue, the real battleground is and always will be admissions standards. As Bob Geary suggested in his piece for Triangle Offense two weeks ago, it is open to academic-minded schools in the ACC (and elsewhere) to create and enforce their own standards, standards that might be significantly higher than the national norm. I certainly would support movement in that direction but also would call attention to this large obstacle: Fans of football, and possibly also basketball, will argue that adapting higher standards when others are not amounts to unilateral disarmament. It would make league schools uncompetitive at the national level, the argument would go, with devastating consequences in terms of television contracts and the revenue models of these schools.

That argument will always be made, just as head coaches will always argue for admitting one more players at the cusp of whatever academic line is drawn in the admissions process. Note however, that the establishment of an NCAA football tournament with guaranteed representation for all conferences could be a game-changer in this regard. It would make it possible for a conference to seriously consider ratcheting up standards without abandoning the possibility of participating in the national tournament. That doesn’t mean those seeking higher standards on a conference-wide basis would necessarily win the argument in the ACC (as presently configured) or elsewhere, but at least the argument would become plausible.

6. Adopt conference rules requiring the dismissal of head coaches whose programs commit multiple major rules violations, whether or not the coaches were personally involved in committing the infractions. Coaches not directly implicated in infractions should be banned from further employment by another school for five years; if the coach was named as personally committing violations, he or she should be banned from employment by all conference members for life.

The final proposed reform aims at fundamentally altering the incentives head coaches face in organizing their programs. The world would be a better place if all universities still had the philosophy of hiring a football or basketball coach and giving him or her a full five years to produce a winning program, so long as the coach is following the rules and making a healthy contribution to the lives of his or her players. Unfortunately, I doubt that any conference is going to be capable of reaching a binding agreement committing all member schools to revert to that approach, though it is still open to individual schools to do so.

What is plausible is that conferences organize to take a very hard line against cheating. So here is my proposal: that the ACC (and other conferences) require schools to dismiss the head coach of any program that is found to have a committed two or more major NCAA violations (whether at the same time or cumulatively over the course of a coach’s tenure). Whether the coach was found by the NCAA to be personally responsible or implicated in the rules violations should be immaterial to the enforcement of this provision, with the exception that any coach who is personally implicated in even one major violation should be dismissed immediately.

Further, coaches dismissed for these reasons should be banned from further employment (as a head coach or an assistant coach) by any conference member for a five-year period if they were not personally implicated in a violation, and for life if they were.

When coaches know they simply can’t survive NCAA violations, their approach to self-regulation and enforcement will change. Even accomplished coaches will know they can’t be cavalier about the rules. Further, a rule like this would relieve chancellors and presidents of the task of having to do battle with their own schools’ fans over the future of well-liked coaches whose programs break the rules. Rather than a matter of bitter local controversy, resolution of such cases would flow directly from the binding conference policy.

None of these reforms unties the Gordian knot of college athletics or eliminates the inherent tension in the odd, uniquely American arrangement of academic institutions sponsoring athletic programs with enormous spectator interest. Many issues are not addressed by these reforms, especially the question of how to simplify and rationalize NCAA rules and achieve more uniform NCAA enforcement.

But these measures, especially if taken as a package, could improve the landscape of college sports significantly over the next five to 10 years, without destroying them in the process.

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