A Fresh Start for College Sports

October 09, 2011

Last month, in the wake of an NCAA conference realignment that saw some of the country's largest sports programs scrambling to follow the biggest bucks, the association's president, Mark Emmert, chastised athletics directors for contributing to a growing public perception that all the NCAA cares about is money. He found the episode embarrassing, he said, and hoped it would serve as a catalyst for changes that are already under way within the organization.

He is right about the conference realignment being an embarrassment, but the hard truth is that high-profile athletics has gotten so out of hand that it needs an entirely fresh start, not a patchwork of incremental changes.

I was part of a group of presidents, athletic directors, and coaches who were asked in 2002 to suggest changes in NCAA policy to ensure greater academic success for student-athletes. Over the years, many of the reforms we recommended were enacted, such as increasing eligibility and admission requirements and expanding penalties on programs that did not measure up. The efforts by our group and others were sincere, but certainly they did not do enough to deal with the many abuses we see in intercollegiate athletics today.

In light of those abuses, here are some pragmatic recommendations that ought to be on the table for discussion.

  • Impose stiffer penalties for those who violate the rules. The present approach allows many to get off scot-free. The NCAA should not allow participation in postseason activities by institutions whose students don't meet academic-progress requirements (this is already under consideration). It should require a five-year ban on working at an NCAA member institution for any coach or staff member who knowingly participates in the violation of rules. It should penalize students who knowingly violate the rules and then start with a clean slate somewhere else. And it should inflict far more pain on donors and fans who knowingly violate the rules. Those steps would be a much more forceful and fair way of saying that the NCAA means business, and would mean that rules violators would no longer benefit from their actions.
  • Simplify the rules, as Emmert and others have suggested. This is essential, because a collection of 400-plus pages of rules is over the top. Even college presidents should be able to understand them.
  • Work with the NBA to allow high-school graduates to determine their own destiny. The so-called one-and-done rule that requires basketball players under the age of 19 to have completed a year of college before going professional adds to the cynicism that young people have. Let young adults be responsible for their decisions. The present requirement results in colleges' bringing in students who have no desire to complete their academic work, a situation that cheapens everyone involved.
  • Base financial aid on the true cost of attendance. Emmert and others are correct in suggesting this. While perhaps it need not be required, those institutions that wish to should have the opportunity to do so. Today an athletic scholarship does not pay for incidental expenses, which can run $2,000 to $3,000 a year, including the cost of travel to and from campus, toiletries, extra meals, etc. While it might be a costly addition for institutions having financial difficulties, it is the fair thing to do, particularly for student-athletes coming from low-income families. This might make under-the-table gifts less of a problem.
  • Encourage the NFL to develop its own farm league, as with baseball and, to a lesser degree, basketball. Give young adults a choice: to be student-athletes or minor-league players. But let the professional leagues pay for the apprenticeships.
  • Create an amnesty program. All violations in the discovery pipeline should be dropped, and violations discovered before January 1, 2012, should receive amnesty. I strongly believe that rules violators should pay for their indiscretions, but occupying ourselves with the past keeps us from dealing with the future. Instead of chasing our tails for the next five years, let's acknowledge that there is plenty of blame to go around: institutions that allowed infractions to occur, coaches and athletic directors who too often remained ignorant of the facts around them, students who knowingly or unknowingly accepted benefits, donors and fans who got overenthusiastic about winning, the media that glorify athletes but say little about academic performance, professional leagues that are only too happy to see higher education pay for the farm leagues, and the NCAA, which put everything but the kitchen sink into its rules. That's a lot of blame to spread around, but it is time to move on. Acknowledge past mistakes, but focus on the future.

My fear is that the NCAA will come up with even more rules to fix the most public problems but will not confront the systemic, underlying issues. I think that the NCAA and its member institutions are up to the challenge, but there's no time to lose.

Kenneth A. Shaw is chancellor emeritus of Syracuse University.