This is a long-overdue summary I’ve been meaning to write down for years. First, some overall thoughts:
- There is nothing morally superior or inferior (or more or less important to the intrinsic worth of a young adult human being) about possessing the ability to run fast, throw accurately, shoot three-pointers, or hit a curveball as opposed to the ability to compose sonnets, balance REDOX equations, sculpt stunning statues, or analyze balance sheets.
- The above notwithstanding, some of the above abilities are more valuable economically than others, and this is only compounded by the degree to which someone may be truly exceptional relative to everyone else at a particular skill.
- Even taking the broadest possible interpretation of the purpose of an institution of higher learning, intellectual and artistic pursuits are much more closely related to this purpose than are athletic ones, though both inter- and intra-mural sports are certainly related to producing well-rounded adults.
- To the extent that athletics, physical fitness, team camaraderie, the spirit of competition, etc. are part of a college or university’s mission, they should contribute to, rather than detract from, the academic portion.
- Furthermore, there can and should be opportunities for students to participate in sports that don’t fill the stadium or arena. Put another way, if the philosophy department isn’t required to be “self-supporting,” then having a women’s field hockey team that also doesn’t cover its own costs is perfectly fine.
- No system is perfect. The thoughts I’ll outline below would, I hope, be an improvement. And I have tried to frame them in such a way as to comply with laws and general principles of universities. But I’m sure there are opportunities for abuse and constraints that I haven’t considered. This is just a framework.
With all that out of the way, here are the four pillars of my plan were I to suddenly be appointed Czar of American Inter-collegiate Athletics:
I. End school-funded athletic scholarships
Paying the way of a student to come to college merely because of his/her athletic ability runs contra to the purpose of higher education and should be stopped. But what about all the kids who never would have had a chance at an education? There’s a two-part answer to that. One part is that is increasingly a red herring issue. Just look at the “one-and-done” culture in men’s college basketball. Premier athletes are not coming to college to get an education; they are coming because it is the only available avenue for them to pursue their future profession. If you understood my first bullet point above, you’ll know that I have absolutely zero problem with that. However, that’s not what a university is really about.
The second part of my response to that question is that there are just as many students crowded out of the opportunity to go to college by athletes who wouldn’t otherwise be there if not for their athletic ability. These non-athletes are just as worthy of the opportunity. If you really think through the implications of my plan, as I’ll try to do below, you may see that there could be more, not less, opportunity for college-aged athletes to pursue their dreams.
Note that, as Point IV below would imply, this is about school-arranged scholarships. If scholarships are funded by non-affiliated groups, I have no problem with that.
II. Enforce roster limits
It used to be said that Bear Bryant’s second stringers were the #2 team in the country. Scholarship limitations (at least in football) are designed in part to prevent teams from stockpiling talent, thereby contributing to competitive balance. I support this concept, except that the current limits are too high for football and too low for just about everything else. I propose limiting rosters by class and by sport. I also propose giving students 5 years in which they may play inter-collegiate sports (the rationale being that it is reasonable to spend 5 years in pursuit of an undergraduate degree). So it might look something like this:
Sport Players per class Total roster limit
Football 15 75
Basketball 3 15
Baseball 6 30
Soccer 5 25
These figures are just for illustrative purposes – the numbers could be different. And, sure, there could be “injured reserve” lists or “practice squads.” But the premise is that you are allowed to have a fixed number of students in each class (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, and Year 5) on your team. The reason behind this will become more apparent when we get to Point IV below, but this is to prevent schools from hoarding really good players on their benches.
III. Fight academic fraud scrupulously, bitterly, and unrelentingly
I have not yet used the term “student-athlete,” but that’s more or less what this point is about. To me, a student’s eligibility to play inter-collegiate sports should depend solely on being an accepted, admitted student in good standing, making appropriate progress toward a degree like any other student. There should be no bending of admissions standards or rules for athletes. There should be no special rules, other than the 5-year rule – if the student is eligible to continue his/her studies, then he/she is eligible to play. The NCAA’s enforcement should be 100% about preventing academic fraud. That’s it. Your team is made up of students who go to your school.
Oh, and the same logic would apply to transfers. Students transfer to different schools all the time for a variety of reasons. Restricting athletes from playing sports for a year after they transfer is just dumb.
IV. Give inter-collegiate athletes the same economic opportunities other students have
And now, the linchpin of the argument: for goodness’ sake, get rid of the silly rules that prevent athletes from capitalizing on their economic value in ways that other students can. I went to school with students who ran businesses on the side and made plenty of money doing it. Were they somehow abusing the principal of Business School Amateurism? Of course not. If a college football player happens to be famous enough to sell his autograph, more power to him! If somebody wants to take the women’s softball team out to a nice dinner after a big win, great! Very few players in any sport would stand to make millions, but that’s not the point. The point is that every other college student is free to get rich (or make some walking-around money), provided he/she can do it. Athletes should be equally free.
And I’ll take this argument a step further. I personally have no idea why a wealthy university booster would be willing to give money, a car, cheap rent, etc. to a kid just so said kid would play for the university. But you know what? Who cares? There is no point in regulating that kind of behavior. If somebody wanted to build a luxury condo for football players to live in free of charge, so what? If a local car dealer wanted to supply Escalades to the basketball team, so what? If women’s golf team went on a booster-paid cruise after winning the conference tournament, so what?
But it’s unseemly! Agreed. But these kids are already being compensated with an education that’s worth a lot of money! Yes they are. Some take advantage of it. Some don’t. Who gets to decide that’s “enough” for them, though? If you make $80,000 per year, how kindly would you take to someone preventing you from making $90,000? But this isn’t what college sports are supposed to be about! Oh, right. They’re supposed to be about…selling out the stadium? TV rights? Merchandise sales? Winning at all costs?
But it’s not fair! Ah. Isn’t it? Now the importance of roster limits becomes important. For athletes who truly want to play at the next level, there is no way they will go to (or stay at) a school where they’ll just be riding the pine, regardless of what they might be paid. Remember, this proposal allows penalty-free transferring, so the competitive landscape could theoretically be rebalancing itself each year. It could be very interesting.
What would happen under such a system? Here are a couple of things I think would happen:
- The general quality of play in football and men’s basketball would probably suffer. I think this is for two reasons. One, fewer students of the athletic caliber of today’s players would be able to get and stay eligible. But before I cry for those kids, I think that something else is also likely, and that is that the NFL and NBA would eliminate the rules limiting draft eligibility to 3 years (NFL) and 1 year (NBA) after high school. I also think they would get really serious about having a minor/developmental league.
- “Non-revenue” sports would change in ways I can’t envision. I don’t have a problem with most sports being subsidized by one or two others. And I’d hate to see college track and field, baseball, soccer, hockey, tennis, golf, etc. go the way of the dodo. It may be that the system I’ve outlined would actually help some of these athletes (would Nike sponsor a budding collegiate track star?), but it may also be that eliminating scholarships would be detrimental. But you know what? If “amateur” really means playing for the love of the sport, then the Division III model may not be so bad after all.
- People would find really creative ways to game the system. There would likely arise a class of brokers, agents, handlers, etc. to help manage the roster limit situation while taking care of gifted athletes. It would be a crash-course in adult decision making for sure. I worry even more about the “tutor class” who would find ways to circumvent academic requirements. Like I said, nothing is perfect. I just think this is a lesser evil.
- Interest in major college sports would continue unabated. This is because, at the end of the day, the audience ultimately cares more about the name on the front of the jersey than on the back. Michigan playing Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl is still Michigan playing Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. The Iron Bowl is still the Iron Bowl. South Carolina will still beat Clemson every year. The beat will go on, plenty of people will make and spend money, and fans will be fans.
What have I missed? I’m interested in the discussion…