US college sports graduate to big business

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When not eating, shopping, praying or sleeping, millions of Americans will be gorging on college football over the next two weeks.

The holiday season brings with it the college bowl season, comprising 28 games. played around the country. Though only one game actually matters – the University of Southern California and the University of Texas, the two highest-ranked teams, will compete for the national title in the Rose Bowl on January 4 – the bowl season is one of the great American sporting spectacles. But, to many observers, college football and college athletics in general have also become one of the great American scandals.

Consider, for instance, the University of Colorado’s football programme. Last week, the school finally sacked coach Gary Barnett after a stormy seven-year tenure that included accusations of rape against some players; allegations that sex, alcohol and drugs were used as recruiting tools; claims of witness tampering; and charges of financial improprieties.

No less shocking were the terms of Barnett’s employment and, now, the circumstances of his departure. His $1.6m annual salary made him Colorado’s highest-paid public employee and it appears he was only dismissed because Colorado lost its final three games of the season. The Barnett case – with the money, the scandals and the willingness to overlook them as long as the team was winning – is seen as a graphic representation of what college athletics at the highest level has become.

And what it has become, at least in football and basketball, is a commercial enterprise. Big-time college sports is big business and winning can be exceptionally lucrative.

The CBS television network paid $6bn to own the rights to broadcast the NCAA Division I basketball tournament up to 2013. The ABC network is paying $73.5m annually to broadcast three bowl games – the Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta Bowls. It also pays $30m a year to screen the Rose Bowl. For the teams that reach those games, the pay-off is substantial – about $14m-$17m per school. And nothing gets alumni to write cheques quite like a successful football or basketball team.

The desire to win has naturally taken a toll on academic standards. Many college athletes are students in name only. At the bigger schools, they often reside in separate quarters from the rest of the student body and are given specialised curriculums, many of which revolve around athletics. The courses are designed for the sole purpose of allowing them to retain athletic eligibility. The Washington Post newspaper reported last year that some three dozen schools with Division I-A football programmes were awarding players classroom credit for being members of the team.

Despite this, graduation rates among top college athletes are abysmal. According to a study by the University of Central Florida, of the 65 teams that played in this year’s Division I men’s basketball tournament, 42 graduated fewer than half their players. The Central Florida number crunchers have now turned their attention to football and the teams taking part in this year’s bowl games. The picture is no rosier – 27 of the 56 teams with bowl berths have graduation rates below 50 per cent.

This is not a new problem and for decades there has been talk of reform. Usually, however, the noble sentiments have been drowned out by the sound of the cash register. In its latest attempt to assure critics that efforts are being made to educate student-athletes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) this year introduced a mechanism called the Academic Progress Rate, which measures retention and graduation rates for Division I athletes in all sports. Teams that score below a certain threshold will lose scholarships and possibly the right to participate in post-season tournaments. But many critics expect that universities will respond to the new rules by increasing the number of “Mickey Mouse” classes geared to athletes and dumbing down the coursework even more.

Yet there is growing outspokenness among university faculties. The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, comprised of faculty senates representing 51 Division I schools, was founded in 2002 with the aim of cleaning up college sports. This year, it issued a paper outlining steps it believes the NCAA and member universities should take to improve the academic performance of student-athletes. For instance, it recommended closer monitoring of class choice among athletes to try to identify and root out phony courses and, possibly, shorter athletic seasons.

 The COIA dressed its proposed changes in conciliatory language, reflecting its belief that the NCAA is capable of reforming itself. But another faculty organisation, relatively new to the scene, The Drake Group, has no such faith and believes draconian measures are needed to curb the rampant commercialisation of college sports and the erosion of academic standards. It advocates a number of steps, including eliminating athletic department academic advisers who are known to steer athletes towards the least-challenging classes and who are not above leaning on professors who try to make athletes earn their grades. The Drake Group also wants to force universities to disclose data about the courses that athletes select and how they fare relative to their non-athlete peers.

More controversially, the Drake Group is pushing Congress to intervene. it thinks that the NCAA will only get serious about reforming collegiate athletics when it feels pressure from Washington. ““It is the only way things will get done,” says Frank Splitt, a former professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and a member of the group. He believes that legislators should threaten the NCAA’s tax-exempt status as a means of forcing it to police collegiate sports more rigorously.

There is another option, one that finds little support in the faculty lounges but that is slowly winning converts among fans and pundits – end the scholar-athlete charade altogether and pay college players to compete. It is pointed out that Division I basketball and football essentially function as minor leagues for the NBA and the NFL and that being a member of a Division I football or basketball team is more or less a full-time job. If players are not going to receive decent educations in exchange for services rendered on the pitch, so the argument goes, they should be treated as the professionals they have become and share in the revenues they help generate.

But as the NCAA and most university administrators can hardly bring themselves to admit there is a problem, such a radical solution stands almost no chance.

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