Since the inception of revenue-generating athletics at U.S. universities, administrators and coaches have faced calls for reform on the playing field and in the classroom. From Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 demand for decreased violence in college football to the Knight commission’s repeated exhortations at the end of the 20th century to re-emphasize the academic side of the student-athlete relationship, universities have survived controversy after controversy by making slight changes to eligibility and recruiting rules. Recently, two unrelated events — a National Labor Relations Board decision allowing Northwestern University football players to hold a vote on whether to unionize and the continuing fallout from a cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina — have prompted some commentators to remark that college sports will be changed forever, with players winning fair compensation for their unpaid labor and perhaps even relief from the classroom responsibilities they cannot complete.
However, given how seamlessly the myth of the student-athlete has been integrated into the college sports product, I remain skeptical that university alumni and other affiliated fans — the primary consumers of this form of entertainment — will accept such dramatic alterations.
Like many other scholars working in this area, I welcome all proposals to pay college athletes, reduce their course loads and separate athletics departments from the universities to which they are connected. Those proposals, however, appear to conflict with the marketing model that sustains revenue-generating college sports. In his book “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,” the economist Charles Clotfelter notes, “No foreseeable force is likely to sever the century-old marriage between commercial athletics and American higher education … [given] the social benefits that are produced by big-time sports,” which range from donations and political support to the enjoyment provided to legions of fans. To a considerable extent, such enjoyment arises from the intense association that fans have with the student-athletes who represent their schools: Although it is widely accepted that athletes do less academic work and receive other benefits from the university administration, the belief that these individuals are not merely performers loyal to the highest bidder but rather fellow alumni, fellow students — one of us — has a profound appeal.
Bend but don’t break
Even the most levelheaded sports enthusiasts seem willing to accept this amateur illusion when it suits their purposes.
For example, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament thrives on audience suspension of disbelief in the mercenary nature of revenue-generating athletics. Absent a desire to win a bracket pool or see one’s university advance to the Final Four, most spectators root for the underdogs — undermanned, underskilled teams from smaller colleges and universities that ostensibly play the game the right way — exhibiting an unselfish, team-first attitude that reflects the virtues instilled in them by their coaches. To some viewers, the players on these teams offer living proof that the myth is real, that top athletes can simultaneously excel in the classroom and on the playing field. Even when viewers aren’t thinking this, the announcers-cum-shills for the NCAA brand are quick to remind them that, say, a gritty team leader like Ohio State University point guard Aaron Craft places his religious faith and schoolwork ahead of his accomplishments on the court and plans to attend medical school if a career in professional basketball fails to materialize.
The member universities of the NCAA recognize both the appeal and the necessity of this student-athlete myth. The bend-but-don’t-break approach — which has consisted of making slight modifications to recruiting and eligibility standards and then billing these changes as major reforms — was used to remedy everything from the problem of tramp athletes (players playing for multiple teams, sometimes in the same season) in the 1910s and 1920s to the pay-for-play scandals in the Southwestern Conference during the 1980s. Such an approach will likely be employed to forestall what many experts now seem to regard as inevitable: a major upheaval of the college sports landscape. Just as the hammer appears poised to fall, with unionization of athletes looming at private universities and the O’Bannon v. NCAA class action litigation on the fair usage of athletes’ likenesses proceeding to trial, the powers that be will likely cut a deal on player stipends, perhaps at an amount slightly higher than NCAA President Mark Emmert’s proposed $2,000 figure. At any rate, it will be an amount sufficient to silence just enough players to prevent rapid unionization. This would defer a hypothetical judgment day for another decade or more.
The NCAA will do whatever it can to remind fans that it is not simply a farm for professional sports and preserve its extremely marketable illusions.
Many observers of college sports will reluctantly concede that top universities might be bending the rules in order to recruit star players and ensure these stars remain academically eligible to perform. But the populist outrage of casual fans tends to be reserved for those programs that have had their violations exposed by NCAA investigators and sports journalists. The University of North Carolina has received intense media scrutiny for allowing its athletes to reap the benefits of vastly inflated grades earned in bogus independent study courses. But the truth is that there have been hundreds of instances of similar conduct by other major universities; in the 1910s and 1920s, there were numerous examples of college athletes who were never enrolled students at all. The benefit of the UNC scandal to the NCAA, to the extent that a public relations crisis can be beneficial, is that it suggests these violations are exceptions rather than the rule. Such exceptions can be remedied, as always, with a pledge of increased institutional oversight from the offending university and whatever NCAA sanctions the market will bear — a full program shutdown in the case of an upstart university, as was foisted on Southern Methodist during the 1980s, or a one-year postseason ban, the penalty for UNC’s football team in 2012.
Whether authorizing the payment of a modest stipend to student-athletes in order to ensure their continued loyalty or penalizing academically noncompliant programs to remind fans that college sports are not simply a farm for professional sports, the NCAA will do whatever it can to preserve its extremely marketable illusions. Absent organizing myths that appeal to casual fans, public interest in a spectator sport will dwindle. A purely cynical atmosphere is bad for business. (Major League Baseball discovered this after cracking down, in a haphazard and confusing manner, on the use of performance-enhancing drugs that had allegedly cheapened the game by improving the abilities of its players.) If college sports are forced by a series of NLRB decisions to devolve into glorified minor leagues for the professional sports to which they supply players — a proposal first championed by former Northwestern football player Rick Telander in his 1989 book, “The Hundred Yard Lie” — then the affiliated universities will likely draw crowds similar in size to those attracted by teams in the Arena Football League, the NBA Developmental League and the assorted minor league baseball associations. Loyal Ohio State University alumni who might happily watch medical-school-bound Craft make daring steals and drain three-point shots would perhaps be far less eager to watch a team of players drawing their salaries from that university’s athletic department but otherwise lacking any formal ties to it, particularly when the overall standard of play is inferior to that found in the NBA.
Revenue-generating college sports will endure as an ungainly appendage to American universities until the precise moment when its costs outweigh its benefits. That day may come sooner rather than later. A chain of unfavorable legal decisions, culminating with a massive judgment award in one or more of the 65 concussion-related lawsuits pending against the NCAA in state and federal courts, could accomplish what a long tradition of media outrage has not been able to: the effacement of a puzzling 100-year marriage between research universities and high-end athletics. Should the plaintiffs prevail in some of these cases, payouts to injured athletes could run into the millions or perhaps even billions of dollars, rendering athletic departments insolvent and unable to continue subsidizing athletic exhibitions of any sort. Until then, the student-athlete ideal, as phony and compromised as it is, remains the NCAA’s chief asset. Remove it and nothing is left — and perhaps nothing should be.