Should the federal government reform college sports?

President Barack Obama stands amongst the 2012 BCS National Champion University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team at the South Lawn of the White House. (Photo: Larry Downing, Reuters)
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Brooks Hays

As the heavy, humid dog days of summer descend upon much of country, most of the sports-watching public is focused on home runs and hot dogs. But somewhere, far away from air conditioning and ice-cold lemonade, young men are returning to the football fields of their college campuses and preparing to start two-a-days, bracing themselves for wind sprints, lunges, and x’s and o’s.

Around the same time, like clockwork, the college football analysts on all the major television networks are reconvening and preparing to chart a fresh path to the next national championship. They debate underdogs and favorites, evaluate professional prospects, and pick frontrunners for the Heisman trophy. In cities and suburbs, towns and villages, the flags of alma maters are hoisted once again, from windows and doorsteps and the roofs of passing cars. Tailgaters stock up on hot sauce and clean out the cooler. Man-cave dwellers look to upgrade their flat screen televisions. And fans patch together a new veil of hope, imagining against all odds, that this year may be their year.

This annual tradition, the collective anticipation of another season, is comforting to fans of American college sports, especially college football. It is a reminder that soon Saturday will once again be game day — a signal that despite last year’s controversies, all is well. But underneath the blare of marching bands and school fight songs, behind the glow of highlight reels and beer commercials, all is not well. Big time college sports and the organization that oversees them — the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) — are in trouble, and what New York Times columnist Joe Nocera calls “changes that nibble around the edges” won’t fix what’s broken.

Some of the problems are obvious, problems like the umpteen NCAA-investigated scandals: the academic cheating scandals, the booster club and improper benefits scandals, the coaches-abusing-players scandals, the coaches-using-homophobic-slurs scandals, the recruiting scandals, the Sandusky conviction for child molestation, and so many more.  Some of the problems are less obvious, and often hidden from view. These problems are the ones that the NCAA, so far, has refused to investigate, like the exploitation of college athletes, who perform without pay while the salaries of coaches and their assistants balloon into the millions. Problems like weak academic standards, which, loosely enforced and often ignored, ensure the emphasis remains on the second word in “scholar athlete,” and leave too many college athletes unprepared for the real world. Problems like institutional hypocrisy and double standards, where petty recruiting violations dominate the attention of NCAA regulators while larger ethical dilemmas are shrugged aside, a world where student athletes are forever banned from collegiate competitions for even minor violations — while college coaches jump ship in the face of scandal, hopping from one big contract to the next.

Self-help guides says the first step towards solving a problem is admitting you have one. Nearly every year, the NCAA does this — sort of.  Its leaders admit that problems exist and promise that changes are coming. Academic standards are tweaked, NCAA rules books are reexamined and pared down, and bureaucracy is thinned. But these minor reforms rarely acknowledge the real crisis — the exploitation of student athletes or the unsustainable costs of athletic departments — or move college athletics towards real change.

Most critics of the NCAA and major college athletics are skeptical that real change can happen from within. The money distributed to NCAA member universities is just too good — and changes might mean less of it. In 2012, the NCAA negotiated a new TV deal with CBS and TBS for March Madness — the annual college basketball championship tournament —worth north of $10 billion; it also sold the television rights for a new college football post-season playoff (replacing the Bowl Championship Series), to ESPN for more than $5.6 billion.

In 2009, a report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization that regularly assembles thought leaders, school officials, college coaches, and others, to offer ideas on ways to improve the integrity of college athletics, concluded that most college presidents “would like serious change but don’t see themselves as the force for the changes needed, nor have they identified an alternative force they believe could be effective.” Back in 2001, the commission was even more forthcoming, writing in its report: "Together, we created today's disgraceful environment. Only by acting together can we clean it up." Ten years before that, in 1991, William Friday, president emeritus at North Carolina and co-chairman of the Knight Commission, concurred with critics that change was needed.  “I hope we'll be given time to implement our changes,” he said.

With the crisis of major college athletics becoming more apparent — scandal after scandal after scandal — and the involved parties increasingly throwing their hands in the air, some pundits are beginning to wonder whether real change might require an outside force, the federal government, perhaps.

“The schools and the NCAA exist as a cartel and are engaging in price fixing,” says Patrick Hruby, a culture and sports writer for publications like The Atlantic and ESPN. Massive profits area being made off unpaid labor. Legally speaking, the NCAA relies on laws related to amateur sports, explains Hruby, but practically speaking, they do it be promising a scholarship -- even if that scholarship amount, as studies show, routinely falls short of the true costs of attending school. “Either way, there’s restraint of trade there, in my opinion.” Hruby says that “the first and most obvious way” for the federal government to intervene, would be for players and former players and their representatives to win a lawsuit in federal court, and for an injunction to be placed on the operations of major college athletics and the NCAA. Two lawsuits alleging that the NCAA’s rules and agreements with college athletic programs constitute a violation of anti-trust laws are currently pending in federal court.

There’s also the question of taxes.  “Another reason the federal government could or should get involved in some way,” says Hruby, “is that all this stuff is essentially tax free.” Andrew Zimbalist, Professor of Economics at Smith College and expert in the business of sports, agrees that “there are two levers the federal government could pull to encourage change.” One is anti-trust law, he says, and the other is revoking the “tax preferences given to major college athletic programs.” Both the NCAA and all athletic departments exist as non-profit entities, enjoying millions in untaxed profits and millions more in donations from booster-club members who write off their assistance to teams — including teams building new stadiums and facilities — as charity giving. Charity write-offs cost the U.S. Treasury more than $36 billion in 2011, ten percent of which was money given to universities, and a portion of this nearly $4 billion was certainly donated to universities because of their athletic programs. Millions more in profits from TV deals negotiated by athletic conferences and the NCAA are redistributed to participating schools, while not a dime of it is taxed. Diminishing this source of financial assistance could potentially slow the arms race that is currently a reality in college sports and force a reassessment of priorities.  How about bigger and better libraries, instead of bigger and better stadiums and athletic facilities?

While Zimbalist, Hruby, and others see government intervention in college athletics as a theoretical question, others are adamant for it to become reality. One notable advocate for federal regulation of big time college sports is the National College Players Association (NCPA), a new branch of United Steelworkers, the largest industrial labor union in the U.S.  The NCPA has begun lobbying for the rights of college athletes, advocating for a series of reforms that would see, among other things, scholarship amounts raised, injury risks minimized, and athletes enabled to earn outside commercial revenue. “While the DOJ should clearly become heavily involved in addressing NCAA antitrust violations,” NCPA wrote in a recent report, “the United States Congress is a vehicle that can bring forth comprehensive reform. It has jurisdiction over both higher education and interstate commerce and can implement uniform legislation nationwide.”

A less talked-about issue, civil rights, may lead to federal intervention. Graduation rates for African-American college athletes continue to lag well behind those of their white teammates. “Some have even argued that college athletics act as a wealth transfer from predominantly African American, disenfranchised students, to wealthier, predominantly white students,” Hruby says. In other words, the sports that earn the most money, men’s football and basketball, rely heavily on the talents of African American players. That revenue is redistributed throughout athletic programs, propping up less profitable sports teams, tennis, swimming, and lacrosse, for example — sports more likely to feature white and affluent athletes. “Perhaps someone could build a compelling case that would interest somebody in the federal government to at least investigate, or maybe, intervene,” Hruby says.

Trade violations, tax law, workers’ rights, civil rights — these issues are all the purview of the federal government. But defining a possible federal role is no easy task.  “It’s easy to easy to say that there is exploitation, it’s easy to say there is cheating, it’s easy to say there is a perversion of values,” says Zimbalist. “It’s very hard, very complicated to say how any of this can be solved.” Zimbalist says that athletes, college sports officials, and the American public first need to decide what they want from college sports. Do they want more professionalized, commercialized sports entertainment on America’s campuses — or a smaller-scale, more modest athletic complement to a campus life more centered on learning?  “If people could first agree what they want out of college athletics,” Zimbalist says, “then we might be a little closer to solving the problem.”