Untie the Knot Binding College Sports and Educational Values

As most of us are well aware, important challenges to today’s existing order in athletics are under way, from the court system and through the widely discussed National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern football players are employees of the university and have the right to unionize. Regardless of their final outcomes, these challenges are long overdue. I believe they represent an inevitable recognition that the oft-acclaimed “amateur” status of big-time college sports is a sham.

We need only look to the example of the University of Kentucky’s basketball team, which finished as runner-up yesterday in the NCAA tournament, and the number of its star players who opt for “one and done.” These are student-athletes? As NFL commentators are wont to say, “C’mon man!” In too many instances, the very term “student-athlete” has become nothing less than an oxymoron; a cynical attempt to put clothes on the emperor. Many of us hate to have cherished memories of the joys of real college sports, played in the right way for the right reasons, tarnished in this way.

Many deep-seated factors are at work producing this situation, but chief among them is the huge appetite for high-grade TV entertainment by those who enjoy watching sports played at a high level—and I include myself among that number. The dollars flowing into the system at the top of the big-time-college-sports pyramid are staggering, including multimillion-dollar salaries paid to coaches. However, the crude dollar figures mask a couple of crucial facts: Most of the big-time college programs lose money when proper account is taken of generally overlooked capital outlays and other hidden subsidies, and a very small percentage of aspiring-pro players make it big—or make it at all.

More generally, the pernicious effects (creating temptations for leaders to cut corners, if not simply to lie about what is going on) of big-time college sports on fundamental values are evident—and dismaying. Never mind the corrupting effects on the once-cherished notion of what it means to be a serious student who loves playing sports as an integral part of education.

Sports are supposed to support education, not the other way around. This problem is far from confined to the highly publicized programs. As others and I have argued, a misplaced emphasis on new-style college sports is having harmful effects on the educational programs of institutions up and down the competitive landscape, including the Ivies and the Division III colleges.

A problem at many selective colleges and universities (especially the smaller ones) is that admission opportunities are limited for the outstanding all-rounder, who loves sports but is primarily in college to get an education. Highly recruited athletes, focused heavily on their sports, take up too many valuable places. The fact that such places are doing so much better than the high-flying scholarship schools in avoiding the worst excesses means only that their deficiencies are easily overlooked.

In any case, it is high time to untie the knot that, in this country alone, binds what have become largely distinct activities: higher education and what is unmistakably entertainment, served up nightly in the guise of TV-quality college sports. (A historical footnote: This odd “knot” had its beginnings in the 19th century, when college students in the United States were notoriously unstudious, and colleges were desperate for ways to channel their energies, as well as engage the interest of alumni.) It is a mystery to me how, today and in good conscience, the big-time programs can claim tax-exempt status in the name of “education.”

This is not about individual bad behavior, although we can surely find examples of that. This issue is much bigger than any individual program, coach, or college president. That the labor-board case involves Northwestern is telling. Northwestern is an excellent university with great leadership and, among its peers, one of the football programs most concerned about graduating its players and maintaining the right values. But it is significant, from a social-policy standpoint, that even as principled a university as Northwestern has been taken to task, not for being a “bad employer” (on the contrary, as the NLRB official said, it may be a “good employer”), but for being an employer nonetheless.

Thus the root problem here is not “villains” or “bad people” but the system that creates an incentive structure that captures even fine people. It would have been easy, had the object of the NLRB case been a less-principled program, simply to blame the bad guys. That easy way out has been taken away.

Surprisingly, many well-intentioned and highly capable people in education, including many high up in the NCAA, seem not to understand that they have a clear choice. They can either summon up the will to change direction on their own, or they can have changes in direction imposed by outsiders (courts and regulators) that almost surely will prove highly unpalatable—and quite possibly ill-conceived—the unionization of college athletes, for example.

It would take more space than I have here to even start outlining what needs to be done. But the place to begin, surely, is with a broad-based acceptance of the problem and an understanding of its seriousness. One can imagine any number of complex scenarios going forward (including many negative ones), but a hallmark of all sensible scenarios must be a scaling back in the intensity of college sports—perhaps by doing more to control season length, the size of coaching and training staffs, and the reward structure for big-time coaches and athletic directors. There are any number of ways in which we could, collectively, begin to “untie the knot.”

Some people believe it may be too late to have any hope of making real progress, but I would not like to think that. I remain an unabashed enthusiast when it comes to the potential of competitive college sports. Properly understood, and in the context of educational programs, intercollegiate competition has an enormous amount to be said for it—from the perspective of participants who could learn life-long lessons of value rather than how to “game the system,” and from the perspective of institutions that care about providing real education, inculcating right values, promoting healthy bonding experiences for students and alumni, and protecting themselves from reputational risk. All at a time when public suspicion of higher education is at close to an all-time high.

William G. Bowen is president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and of Princeton University. His most recent book is Higher Education in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2013).

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