Sacrificing Sports To Save Athletics

If one thing became clear from the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, it was that the university athletic system is broken beyond repair, and that the time has come to begin the long and painful process of blowing up the entire system. Anything else is just a Band-Aid.

The first step is accepting that the notion of college athletics being a building block of a thorough education became antiquated not long after Teddy Roosevelt’s 1899 speech promoting the importance of the “strenuous life.” In the 113 years since, things have only gotten worse.

So much money is generated by football and men’s basketball that any real enforcement of a competitive rules system is impossible. Punishments are so minor when compared to the benefits of cheating that anyone getting caught simply feigns responsibility, promises to make changes and then continues on smarter in the ways of avoiding detection. But most problematic is that university athletics is a multibillion-dollar business that is on the verge of financial bankruptcy. It became ethically bankrupt decades ago.

According to the NCAA, only 22 (out of 120) FBS athletic departments made a profit for the 2010 fiscal year, and the median negative net generated revenue was $9,446,000. Take away the subsidies from student fees, and state budget and university general fund contributions, and the number of profitable programs shrinks to single digits. As the cost of tuition and maintenance backlogs increases, less money will be available to the athletic departments, which will further exacerbate the budgetary problems.

The battle over the availability of funds between academics and athletics is a tenuous one. Across the country, faculty salaries have been frozen while coaches’ salaries have skyrocketed. At Virginia, a 14-year campaign has been waged on campus to pay its mostly minority general labor workers a fair wage. The school claims economic factors prohibit such an increase in spending, even as it constructs a $13 million indoor football practice facility. Though funding for these projects come from different sources, the subject only brings bad press and concerns over unethical business practices at the school.

It’s time universities get out of the business of amateur athletics and begin running the business like a business. This means making athletes employees, cutting the dead wood and creating a sustainable business plan. Would such a plan make it impossible for some schools to compete on the top level? Yes, but so what? The system isn’t fair now, and a split is inevitable as the BCS conference schools won’t long be content seeing their TV money split with lesser beings. Those left behind can still operate under the NCAA’s scholarship-only system.

New York Times opinion writer Joe Nocera outlined the best proposal I’ve seen to date. His five-point plan, that came from conversations with economists, anti-trust lawyers and reformers, is as follows.

1) A modified free agent system that allows athletes, just like the coaches, to market their skills.

2) A $3-million salary cap for football and $650,000 for men’s basketball with a minimum per player salary of $25,000. Football scholarships would be reduced to 60, basketball would remain at 13.

3) Every player who completes his four years gets another two-year scholarship to complete either bachelor’s or master’s degree.

4) Create a players organization to represent current and former college athletes. Such an organization would be necessary to implement a salary cap. To do otherwise would violate antitrust laws.

5) Lifetime insurance funded by revenue generated by licensing agreements and administered by the players association.

Of course this plan leaves out women’s athletics, at least until it can pay for itself, and all non-revenue-generating sports. That may not seem fair, but universities can no longer afford to fund an everyone-gets-to-play system. This isn’t about taking away opportunities, but about strengthening the business of athletics by controlling the runaway costs that threaten to take down the whole system.

Cost saving won’t just come from eliminating non-revenue sports. Coaches’ salaries now account for 34 percent of the average athletic department’s budget. The cap would help lower coaches’ salaries as market forces would likely downward-adjust coaches’ salaries as schools absorb player costs. Such a plan also would eliminate the questionable practice of awarding one-year scholarships. Players can be signed to two- or four-year contracts that would provide job security currently only enjoyed by coaches.

But won’t the plan ruin what makes university sports so special? No. Be honest. No one tunes into a college football or basketball game to revel in the unspoiled competition of amateur athletics. We watch because the games are exciting. If we, as consumers of sports, truly embraced the noncommercial aspect of athletics we’d never venture past Division III or service academy games. But we don’t. We want to see the best play the best. That won’t change.

For all its positives, I’m not entirely sold on Nocera’s plan. Paying tuition and salary would be costly and necessitate general campus control of the department, which would just reignite long-held animosities. According to the NCAA, the median expense per student-athlete was $76,000 for both 2009 and 2010. Double-dipping would cost schools an additional $4,560,000 per year for football alone. A better system may be to allow players to choose between tuition or salary. For his part, Nocera said the inclusion of tuition is not a make-or-break issue.

Of course, Title IX is an obstacle that will likely be played out in the courts. I’m no legal expert, but since each sport would operate as an LLC, or a subsidiary of the athletic department, I feel Title IX does not apply. Employment would not be based on gender but on each sport’s ability to generate profits.

Those who have been paying attention may remember that I have spent considerable column space combating the idea of the uncompensated student-athlete having nothing to show for his or her efforts but a $40,000-a-year education. I still believe that to be true. But the system is broken and the only way to fix it is a radical redesign.