Behind the Mic: Dollars and Sense in the Age of Major College Athletics

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 19.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.


Pay college athletes. There, I said it. Of course, it’s certainly not nearly that simple, and after a long discussion with my lawyer daughter, well, there are more than just a few minor wrinkles that would need to be ironed out, not the least of which are legal and ethical. But it can – and many believe should – be done. Time and space preclude a detailed discussion here, but I’d like to offer a starting point. After all, dealing with a few legal and ethical details should hardly distress the NCAA. Their rulebook, after all, makes the Affordable Care Act read like “The Cat in the Hat.” I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, careful to not upset them too much. My plan will require their support. And in fact, it may make life a good deal easier for them.

My high school math teacher is somewhere, cringing as I write this. But even I can calculate that the money is there to support a more palatable system. Consider that the first television contract with CBS paid the NCAA $1 billion for the rights to the national tournament. Yes, that’s with a “B.” And did I mention that was a generation ago? The latest deal (2010) was a 14-year agreement for $10.8 billion, generating $771 million per year for the NCAA. And, bear in mind that is for the tournament only. And you thought that “March Madness” referred only to the action on the court! Factor in the revenues generated throughout the regular season from concessions, parking, gate receipts, sponsorships, and yes, even more TV money, and suddenly we are talking about serious capital. That’s big business. That’s a professional system.

The true crux of the issue here lies with the NBA and the NFL and their inability, unwillingness, or more likely their lack of incentive to create a viable minor league system. But then, why should they? They have the major college programs serving the same function, and doing so free of charge. In the meantime, the impulses created by mega dollars have littered the straight and narrow pathway of college athletics with all kinds of land mines, exploding notions of academic integrity, amateurism, and in far too many instances, the broader college experience. The stories of young athletes lured to a campus where they may not belong, nor would they want to be but for the promise of an athletic proving ground, read like so many proverbs. Many colleges housing major basketball and football programs are little more than athletic incubators for youngsters whose primary – if not sole – aim is to make it to the professional level. If, as in most cases, those aims fall short of the intended target, the youngster is left with little on which to fall back. It has become a false promise, and far too many academic institutions, enticed by the exposure and tempted by the potential financial windfall for their schools, have become compliant in this charade.

The time, talent, and treasure now spent by the NCAA in its attempt to herd the cats of big- time programs into their amateur cages and preserve the slightest element of academic integrity has become the epitome of throwing good money after bad. My apologies to Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, and the scores of other major programs for whom the pun applies, but it may be time to rethink the approach, and take some creative steps to save these major sports at the college level. If not, the college game as we know it will soon cannibalize itself at the altar of its own largesse. The advent of the “made for TV” sports of college basketball and college football have given the NCAA an opportunity to take real and effective action in the best interests of the games, the interests of its own mission, and most important, in the interests of so many young men and women misplaced on campuses throughout the country.

Of course, not every college would desire – or for that matter be required – to follow the new blueprint. The NCAA already has different rules for its different divisions, so why not simply establish one more classification? Clearly, there will be some hard decisions for those major college programs that still cling to the “student athlete” ideal. But within the parameters and rules governing the new division, schools will have the flexibility to do more or less – depending on their own interests and philosophical stance. Disparities will exist, but will they be any more pronounced than those which now separate, say, Prairie View A&M and Kentucky or Cornell and Georgetown?

For whatever system to work in favor of intercollegiate athletics and in the best interests of the young people involved, there will have to be serious and honest cooperation between the institutions and the governing body. The fallacy of academic integrity has permeated too many programs. Who among us thinks first of “academic learning or achievement” when we hear the word “scholarship”? On the contrary, the word has come to preclude most notions of higher education for so many of the athletes in question. A CNN.com article published in January underscored just how pervasive the problem might actually be.

Still, the college athletes will have to be tethered to their respective schools in some fashion. This is not only possible, but perhaps it tills fertile ground for real creative thinking. Would they be “employed” as independent contractors? Might they take courses for which they pay out of their own pocket, thereby having some “skin” in their own academic future? Perhaps some would benefit most by taking courses in basic life skills and money management. Possibly pursue a trade? In short, a system could be established to fit the needs and skill sets of the athlete, as opposed to the square-peg-and-round-hole paradigm now in play.

It is no secret – or it shouldn’t be – that the financial windfall from major college athletics largely supports all programs along the vast food chain of intercollegiate athletics everywhere. It’s an honorable end, but the means have caused significant angst and drawn more than a little well-earned cynicism from intellectually honest observers.

It may be time – especially with the kinds of dollars now pouring into the system – to take a lesson from my friends at The Rotary Club and build a system that meets their four way test. Create a system that is truthful, fair to all concerned, builds goodwill and better friendships, and is beneficial to all involved.

That’s an exam that anyone can pass.