Tie Money to Values

December 11, 2011

I have long wondered what the tipping point in intercollegiate athletics would be. Either it would move from the untethered pursuit of money and entertainment toward a model consistent with the soul of higher education, or it would separate from higher education and become professional. The time has arrived for us to move in one direction or the other.

As a lifelong gender-equity advocate and a former collegiate and Olympic athlete, I firmly believe in the educational mission of athletics and its ability to enhance academics and life. Participants in most sports fulfill this mission beautifully, in part, by markedly outperforming their peers in graduation rates. But when football and men's basketball programs cloak their vigorous commercial activities as educational endeavors, they are deceiving taxpayers and their own universities.

Taxes are not imposed on revenues from corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, or donors' contributions, and athletic facilities are built with tax-free bonds. Students are often forced to pay for athletics as part of their student fees, even for the very few sports programs whose income exceeds expenses. The public forgoes taxes on the NCAA's multibillion-dollar basketball-championship television contract with CBS and Turner Sports, as well as on billions more in guaranteed payouts from current media football contracts to the top five major conferences.

At the same time, athletics are heavily subsidized by their institutions directly. The latest report from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that roughly 80 percent of the Football Bowl Subdivision programs averaged a net operating deficit of nearly $10-million. That's money coming from academics to athletics, not the other way around.

Here's what we need to do to eliminate the commercialization and the underlying economic incentives that fuel, among other things, cheating, criminal coverups, and blatant noncompliance with federal laws that give women equal access to collegiate sports:

1. Congress should pass a narrow antitrust exemption that would allow the NCAA to control athletic-program costs and television revenues. Only Congress can override the Supreme Court's 1984 decision that the NCAA could not require its members to participate in its television plan, which at that time spread revenues broadly among athletic programs and helped preserve amateurism. Because of this case, universities are now legally powerless to act collectively to stop the athletic arms race.

2. The NCAA and conferences should replace win-loss records as a determining factor in revenue distribution with demonstrated educational values. The NCAA distributes television money by using a three-part formula: the number of sports that conferences and institutions sponsor; the number of grants-in-aid a college provides; and team performance. Instead, the formula should include graduation rates, academic performance, diversity of all kinds, and gender equity. Additional funds could be awarded for preventing criminal ac­tivity and violence against women, or in the community engagement of the athletics department. We are a naturally competitive society. I swam during the era of true "amateurism" in the Olympics, and I cannot imagine training harder if a first-string NFL contract had been waiting for me at the finish line. But linking winning to economic viability is the surest pathway to its overemphasis.

3. Intercollegiate athletics programs should be required to justify their expenditures annually, tying them to educational outcomes. Some programs are spending more than three-quarters of a million dollars per athlete per year; I can tell you what it takes to produce athletic greatness, and it is not a tenth of that sum. Just ask the Olympic Committee. Most women's athletics and men's Olympic sports programs will have no problem justifying their return on investment to society. Yet because of the underlying economic model, gender equity remains elusive. Women in college get just 42 percent of sports opportunities, despite being 57 percent of the student body. A recent lawsuit and a New York Times investigation suggest gender inequities are even greater than reported because of deceptive practices at some colleges. The overtly commercial nature of much of college athletics makes it less likely that those with direct authority to make major, fundamental improvements are inclined to do so.

Changing the economic metrics for collegiate sports is not a new idea. And incorporating gender equity as a factor in the distribution of money is consistent with the NCAA's own values, embodied in a gender-equity task-force report it released in 1993, which says: "An athletics program can be considered gender equitable when the participants in both the men's and the women's programs would accept as fair and equitable the overall program of the other gender." What is different now is the decibel level of the calls for major reforms.

Until the Penn State scandal, the public was willing to acknowledge the wisdom of these proposals, but did not have the political will to enact them. Now we must return the educa­tional mission to collegiate athletics and eliminate its commercial exploitation. We deserve far more from our tax dollars (and universities' tax exemptions) than we are getting.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, senior director of advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation, and a three-time Olympic gold medalist.