Why College Sports

Originally published in Commentary 90 (December 1990): 49–51. Reprinted in The Writer’s Library: Education, ed. Judith Olson-Fallon (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), pp. 94–100.

Collegiate athletics, it is generally agreed, are a mess. And not merely from an educational point of view. By almost any measure, college sports are becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Although they are sometimes defended on the grounds of the publicity they bring to a school, athletics can as easily be a source of embarrassment as of glory. Within a matter of weeks at the University of Oklahoma last year, a young woman was gang-raped in the athletic dormitory, one football player shot another, and the star quarterback (who had appeared in anti-drug announcements) was arrested for selling cocaine. It seemed obvious, at least to those who concern themselves with such matters, that the athletic program at Oklahoma was out of control, removed from any sense of accountability, badly in need of reform. Nor was Oklahoma's program alone. At the University of Florida, fraud and financial misdealings in the sports department had become so commonplace and unsavory that Governor Bob Martinez proposed the creation of a statewide office to oversee the conduct of collegiate athletics.

The reform of college sports is clearly an idea whose time has come. No one expects athletic programs to clean themselves up: they have become too independent, too unrestrained, too powerful. At some universities, coaches now earn salaries two or three times higher than the highest-paid professor, higher even than the president. Student athletes are (in the phrase of Wayne Duke, former commissioner of the Big Ten) “compartmentalized”: they live apart in specially reserved dormitories, train and practice in specially reserved facilities, and have scant contact with other students. Through the booster club, people who know little and care less about the work of a university are invited to have a hand in its activities. And perhaps as a direct result, almost anything is tolerated—from illegal cash payments to counterfeit grade reports—as long as the team is winning. Between 1984 and 1989, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) publicly reprimanded 83 programs for rules violations, but not even public opprobrium seemed to have much of an effect: another eight programs have been added to the number so far this year. As a successful football coach at a Western university explained, “I'll be fired for losing before I'm fired for cheating.”

It is time, say reformers, to turn things around. The problem, everyone agrees, is that college sports no longer have much to do with college education. And the solution that is proposed is either to make sports more genuinely collegiate, or to acknowledge the fact that they have become something else—a subvariety of professional sports—and put an end to the charade.

One set of proposed reforms would reemphasize the student in student athlete. “College football began as a recreation for undergraduates,” Red Smith once wrote, “but it outgrew that role many years ago.” The general effect of the proposed reforms would be to restore that role, specifically by means of an NCAA plan to set minimum academic standards for athletes who wish to play. On the face of it, the plan seems unobjectionable enough. Indeed, from the outside it is difficult to understand why anyone would have to propose the setting of minimum standards—an absence of standards having much the same effect upon universities that a lack of sweeping has on a floor. Yet the NCAA plan has been met with angry resistance. And this episode reveals a great deal about the likelihood of reform in college sports.

In 1983 the NCAA voted at its national convention to adopt Proposition 48, requiring athletes to score a combined 700 out of a possible 1600 points on the two Scholastic Aptitude Tests—the equivalent of a generous D. (Students receive a score of 400 merely for showing up and answering a single question. Last year, fewer than 30 percent of all who took the tests scored below 700.) Athletes who failed to reach the 700 mark would not be banned from competition, however. As “partial qualifiers,” they would be eligible for a full athletic scholarship, but would be forbidden to practice with the team or suit up for a game until they had passed some eight classes. Then, at its 1989 convention, the NCAA proposed to tighten the rules further by putting an end to scholarships for “partial qualifiers.” An athlete who scored below 700 on the SAT and wished to make up the deficiency by taking classes would have to pay his own way, just like any other student.

John Thompson, basketball coach at Georgetown University and coach of the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball squad, immediately denounced the proposal, threatening to boycott several Big East Conference games in protest. Thompson was never explicit about the reasons for his objection, but others were not so circumspect or so vague. John Chaney, basketball coach at Temple University, excoriated the NCAA proposal as racist. Harry Edwards, the former sports sociologist now working for the commissioner of big-league baseball, said the true purpose behind the higher academic standards was to prevent blacks from dominating college sports.

Thompson made good on his threat, walking off the court moments before tipoff in a game against Boston College. By doing so, he earned himself a reputation as a man of moral severity, for whom principle comes before victory. And this reputation has not gone unrewarded. The Denver Nuggets, a team in the professional National Basketball Association, offered Thompson part-ownership in the club if he would agree to be its general manager. When Thompson turned down the offer, Georgetown's president, the Reverend Leo J. O'Donovan, said, “Our whole university is delighted to know that this great man will be with us for the future.” The great man apparently returns Georgetown's affection. At the NCAA convention in 1988, Thompson attacked a proposal to share revenues with less successful schools. “All the games that Georgetown plays in and all the money that Georgetown wins,” he said, “I'm going on record as saying that I think should go to Georgetown.” Of course, a considerable slice of the money also goes to Thompson: his base salary is $317,000.

Is it racist to uphold academic standards, when black athletes disproportionately fail to meet them? Only if it is equally racist to uphold athletic standards. Thompson's teams at Georgetown have been disproportionately black, and disproportionately good. No one has suggested that Thompson set aside places for Jews or Asian-Americans, to take two groups glaringly underrepresented in big-time college sports. The need for minimum standards in basketball, and the irrelevance of any other criterion than an ability to excel at the game, are unspoken tenets of Thompson and his supporters. What they object to are not standards as such, only inconvenient ones.

The real trouble with the NCAA reforms is not that they are racially motivated, but that they are unlikely to work. It is not merely that coaches like Thompson and John Chaney oppose them. The reforms are doomed to fail because they misinterpret the true character of sports. Thus it is not unusual for the same sports writers and editorialists to approve of Thompson's opposition to the reforms and disapprove of his opposition to revenue-sharing with schools that win less money. But Thompson is entirely consistent: his interests lie in securing the best athletes and enjoying the rewards that come with athletic triumph. It is the reformers of college sports who are inconsistent.

The would-be reformers do not understand why human beings play games. The late Woody Hayes, football coach for two-and-a-half decades at Ohio State University, said it better perhaps than anyone: “I don't think it's possible to be too intent on winning. If we played for any other reason, we would be totally dishonest.” The various plans to reform college sports are, if not totally, at least partially dishonest. For they pretend that sports are played for some other reason than to win.

The nature of this grander intention remains undefined, perhaps because (whatever it may be) it is not what attracts huge crowds and national television coverage. Attendance at football games in the Southeastern Conference averaged 63,600 last year; 325 college basketball games were broadcast on national TV during the 1988-89 season. Numbers like these are not to be explained by the need to circulate examples of moral severity, to develop a well-rounded character in young men, or even to provide opportunities for blacks from low-income backgrounds. These are afterthoughts. In sports, as Santayana observed, “Only the supreme is interesting: the rest has value only in leading to it or reflecting it.” And the supreme is measured in victories.

Since college athletes are intent on winning, then, and since this intent might be termed the professional mode in sports, why not acknowledge the truth about college sports, and, while keeping them at academic institutions, openly professionalize them?

In a recent article in the Washington Monthly, Louis Barbash proposes a system, to be regulated by federal law, in which the players on college teams would be reclassified as “non-student professionals” at a salary of $15,000 a year. Last year a similar scheme, to pay football players at the University of Nebraska, was endorsed by both houses of the Nebraska legislature before being vetoed by Governor Kay Orr.

These measures, though desperate, have several things to recommend them. First, they recognize the essential falsity of the distinction between collegiate and professional. The true distinction is between those who pursue a sport seriously, full-time, in order to outshine all others, and those who do not. In this regard, college athletes are virtually indistinguishable from professionals. Secondly, the professionalization of college sports would at the very least correct the injustice of the present system, in which (as Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University, has put it) athletes provide revenue-generating services for their schools without receiving anything lasting in return.

Yet the idea is absurd, because it is blind to the financial reality of college sports. “One of the great myths is that colleges are getting rich from sports,” notes Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education. “They are not.” In fact, most universities lose money on their athletic programs. “Over 90 percent of the schools in [big-time college sports] are in deficit budgets,” says Frank Windegger, athletic director at Texas Christian University.

Even if the money to pay college athletes could be found, though, a larger question must be answered—namely, why should a system of professional athletics be affiliated with universities at all? For the truth is that the requirements of athletics and academics operate at cross purposes, and the attempt to play both games at once serves only to reduce the level of performance of each.

It is not just that academic standards must be lowered and debased in order to admit ballplayers into college. It is also true that athletic standards are compromised and ultimately corrupted when college students play ball. To demand a certain SAT score or a certain number of credit hours from athletes is rather like looking for a wife who is not only beautiful and brilliant but has the right astrological sign, too. When an irrelevant criterion becomes paramount, the inevitable result is the humiliation of quality.

And this is why it is to be marveled at that universities continue to have anything to do with sports. The two are separate enterprises, to be judged by separate criteria. It is significant that team uniforms are never embossed with the official seal of a university, which represents its authority to grant degrees; instead they are adorned with a special insignia of the team's own. For college sports, the university is not an educational institution at all: it is merely a locus, a means of coordinating the different aspects of the sporting enterprise.

More than 1,200 American universities and colleges and 1,000 junior colleges now field teams in sports ranging from football and basketball to synchronized swimming, handball, polo, field hockey, cycling, and power lifting. It may be hard to believe that, severed from its academic connections, much of this enterprise would remain intact. But it is equally hard to understand why, aside from its need to remain intact, the collegiate sporting enterprise requires academic connections at all.