When billions are on the line, the academic enterprise is sometimes compromised

As March Madness comes to a close, administrators and stakeholders reflect on the commercialization of intercollegiate sports

Hollins University President Nancy Oliver Gray said in a recent interview that the "professionalization of intercollegiate sports" is drastically changing the higher education complex — and hers isn’t even an institution with high-level athletics programs.

It’s hard to refute the point. As March Madness comes to a close and the men’s and women’s basketball players — and all of the cheerleaders, band members, student assistants and others involved in the road exhibitions — return to class, there is some reflection around the country on how the enterprise grew so big.

Major endorsement deals for teams. Billions of dollars of advertising and sponsorship revenue for the Power 5 conferences. Major network coverage, and over $9 billion spent in gambling houses by people around the country vying to pick the winners of the men’s college basketball tournament alone.

It can be hard to remember they’re college students — amateurs — with so much seemingly riding on them.

University of Hartford President Walter Harrison served on both the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance and its executive committee, and he said while he would hesitate to use the term “professionalization,” as Gray did, he believes there is a definite “commercialization of college men’s basketball and football."

"Those are the sports where ... some institutions make money," Harrison said. "So the money that’s flowing into those two areas … the money’s flowing in at a rate that’s mind-boggling, actually. And the issue is, in my view, if we can continue to focus on students first who happen to be athletes, rather than making them professional athletes."

Follow the money

“For me, the threat comes from the increasing amount of money that’s flowing into the highest division of football schools and men’s basketball. Other sports, I don’t think there’s as much concern about,” Harrison said.

Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said the rapid growth of college sports, and the revenue associated with the programs, has led to a compromise by institution leaders, who are beginning to yield to the preferences of the television networks instead of putting the needs of the student-athletes first.

“Frankly, one example I think that deserves reconsideration by the NCAA is the example of tip-offs after 10:00 pm. on the east coast. It used to be that there was a guideline by the NCAA that tip-offs on the east coast would not be after 9:30, and it was articulated as a guideline that was put in place to look out for the athletes, but that was an example of the TV networks wanting a later tip-off for their audiences,” she said.

“For the health of college sports … certainly the universities and their missions need to be driving the decision and the operations of college sports, not the other way around,” Perko continued. “Sports have been embedded in the fabric of universities for more than 100 years. The difference in where we are today is the financial landscape of the top athletic programs is substantially different than what it has been at any other time.”

“University leaders need to be prepared to leave money on the table in negotiations of some aspects of certain things that have to be managed in accordance with what’s best for the students, versus what’s the priority of the networks,” Perko said.

The most often-cited justification for maintaining Division I sports programs is often the expected revenue from shares of TV and sponsorship money, but this is often not as much as touted — especially for programs outside of the Power Five conferences. At most institutions, athletics spending outpaces revenue, meaning most programs actually end up in the red at the end of most years. And student fees are increasingly making up the difference.

Athletics as critical to the business model

“There is a significant difference between schools with the $80 million athletic budget than there is at Division II and III institutions, where athletics is an important part of student life and activities,” Perko said. “Depending on their level of competition, their athletic budgets and whether athletics is really important to the university as a student enrollment tool versus the athletics programs that are the major revenue drivers,” athletics can be an inseparable part of student life, with many presidents describing it as “the intangible social glue of the university.”

"Clearly, sports have always been important in the culture of America, and college sports have always been very popular, and the popularity and the trends certainly have seen an increase," Perko said. "That in and of itself, the increase in popularity, is not a bad thing."

"The concern in … [the] professionalization of college athletics … is when the decisions are made and what drives decisions is what’s in the best interest — decisions really should be driven by doing what’s best for athletes’ well-being and health and safety have to be an imperative, and of course treating the athletes as students and making sure that the academic experience remains at the forefront," Perko said.

What about the academic mission?

Sometimes, Harrison said, the pressure to win interferes with the academic mission of the institutions.

“Where winning becomes the overwhelming goal of the sports program, you are in danger of losing sight of why colleges sponsor sports, and that is to prepare students for life after college,” he said.

He is careful to note that there are very successful programs that also have great success with graduation rates.

“It’s not the winning, it’s how much effort you put into trying to become a big-time winning team and what you’re willing to sacrifice to be able to do that. You don’t have to sacrifice student academic success, but there are some schools that have,” Harrison added. “Those of us who have NCAA Division I institutions — I don’t think we have yet achieved the balance that we should between those two things. We need to find a way to focus on athletes as students first, and not as competitors first. And there are a lot of pressures around that all the time ... but we’ve got to balance” the two in a way that brings academics to the forefront.

Perko said, “I think overall there’s been over the past five years, really much of it a reaction to some of the lawsuits that challenged the fundamentals of college sports, the pendulum is in many cases swinging back, with more emphasis on leaders to put more emphasis on some of the educational outcomes” of the student-athletes. Some of this has included changing “the NCAA revenue distribution [model] to include academic incentives and to reward the institutions that are meeting academic [targets] at a high level,” as well as pushes to “reduce athletic time demands on athletes.”

“College presidents, ultimately they have to take control of all aspects of college sports. ESPN should not be the major decision maker and control college football. That has to be controlled by university presidents and athletic directors. And so, even take March Madness as an example, as I said there’s certainly been some very healthy changes in regards to the money distribution...and we certainly want to take a look and make sure that a significant amount of the money goes back to supporting student scholarships,” she continued.

Earl Smith, professor emeritus of sociology at Wake Forest University, said the time the athletes spend on their sports takes away from the academic mission of many of these major academic institutions. “Think about it,” he said, “Athletes used to go to practice at 3:00 or 4:00 after class was over. Now, they’re in the workout room at 5:00 a.m., possibly across the lunch hour, and then in the evening. … All those kinds of things are now incorporated into the academic day, and you can’t tell me that this doesn’t have an impact on many of the young people’s ability to get the kinds of grades that they may want.”

“Professors know this: Your college says you have to have [certain core requirements]...in so many schools, student-athletes can often circumvent the standard curriculum, and you can do it in ways that are very interesting,” Smith said.  “We know that in these big schools and in these departments, we have friendly professors. If you look at a transcript, you might see that this student has taken five, six courses with professor X. And that could hardly be random.”

“These students should be able to have some leeway in their curriculum, because most of these young men and women don’t have time in their schedules to take [all of the courses and labs required]” in addition to their practice and game schedules. “They’re performing for the institution, so they should have some of those leeways,” he said professors are taught. “Athletes often have advisers who are athletic advisers. It comes under the umbrella of the student support centers that most athletic departments have. And there’s been tons of conflict over who reigns — is it the athletic adviser or the academic adviser.”

At most schools, athletes are kept mostly separate from the general student body. At the University of Texas, for example, most of the courses the student-athletes take are housed in or near the athletic complex. Student-athletes dine together, hang out together. Their whole lives are wrapped up in the athletics department, compromising their experience as traditional students. Some student-athletes And while most states and programs do not go as far as Missouri, which attempted to pass a bill through the state house barring student-athletes from participating in student protests, many college athletes have reported that their coaches quietly discourage any such actions that connect them to a greater purpose on campus.

Harrison said it is the role of the university president to make it clear that the academic mission reigns supreme and student-athletes are allowed to be students first.

"I’ve always felt this, but a university president must set a tone for the institution’s sports teams," Harrison said. "And I think that’s true in many ways. He has to set the priority that athletes are students first, that we’re preparing our student for life after their athletic careers, and I think they have to set an ethical tone, and I think at some institutions where we’ve seen issues, that any one of those things gets lost. The president, as in most things, sets the tone for the institution, … for that kind of focus on the welfare of the student-athletes."

Who loses?

The greatest defense of intercollegiate athletics programs is that student-athletes graduate at higher numbers than their non-athlete counterparts, thanks largely in part to the additional academic supports and advisers put around them.

Perko said the important statistic to review is "how do college basketball athletes compare to the student body, in terms of graduation rates overall. And I think the data show there has been vast improvement in the graduation rates and academic success of college basketball players in particular," which she said is thanks largely to the "attention that college basketball coaches and other staff begin to pay in this area."

But a recent report by The Institute for Diversity and Equity in Sport at the University of Central Florida found that the graduation of black basketball players on 2017 tournament teams is down for the first time since the NCAA started tracking the data in 2005. Though the drop was nominal — only one percentage point from the previous year — Institute Director Richard Lapchick said in a press release it "sounds an alarm of reversed progress and points to a need for increased vigilance regarding the disparity between white and African-American student-athletes."

African-American male students are the most vulnerable population in higher ed, with overall graduation rates remaining lowest of all demographics. They are also the students who disproportionately make up the populations on the men’s basketball and football teams — the revenue sports that drive the NCAA money machine.

And while college programs must maintain certain academic marks, there has been no shortage of scandals around “paper classes,” to keep students eligible to play — either classes that turn out not to exist at all, as in the still-unresolved University of North Carolina case, or classes that serve no practical benefit for post-collegiate success. At one unnamed program, administrators from the president’s office to the athletic director’s chair make no apologies about steering student-athletes into paper classes, saying if the students’ entire motivation for matriculating through college was to be able to play their chosen sport at such a high level, they don’t want anything — least of all not classes — getting in the way of students achieving that goal.

Smith finds this to be among the greatest tragedies of the intensity of intercollegiate competition. “The student might be telling you on the side, especially if they’re a scholarship student, that they really don’t want to take this particular course, but because it’s a course that doesn’t conflict with the practice schedule” or one in which athletics personnel can be reasonably assured of an A, “they’re being forced to take it.”

“They’re students. You keep telling us they’re students. The NCAA doesn’t want to pay them, so why is it that they can’t choose their own curriculum?” Smith asked.

The pressure of winning in those two sports, this is really not a matter of race, but it’s really a matter of trying to cater to the most at-risk students,” said Harrison. “Many of them have a cultural expectation of being successful in those sports when they come to college, so how do we help support them as students. First, I think it’s very important to provide them with the academic support as early as possible, sometimes in the summer before their season starts, and definitely in the first year,” he said, acknowledging the summer after a student’s freshman year as the period most susceptible to student attrition.

But beyond that, he said, programs have a responsibility not to set students up to fail for the sake of winning on the court or field. The same strategy that should be in place for any student should hold true for student-athletes, Harrison believes.

“You don’t admit people who aren’t prepared to do the work, you make sure they’re supported, and you make sure they’re supported outside of the classroom as well,” he said.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation