Can the Power Conferences Save College Sports?


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The recent decision by the NCAA to allow the Power Conferences (with a total of 65 institutions in 5 major conferences like the Big Ten and Southeast Conference) to set some of their own rules, like those that govern recruiting, may strike some as the latest manifestation of college sports gone wild. There is no question that this decision will enable the rich to get richer and to dominate sports consciousness in even more powerful ways, especially through greater TV saturation. This year the Big Ten Network, the envy of other conferences, will broadcast 40 football games and 130 basketball games.

But there is a more hopeful way to look at this development, one that sees it not as the latest episode in the commercialization and professionalization of college sports (though it is very much that), but rather as one that can lead to a longed-for return to sanity and true amateurism in most of the realm of collegiate sports.

Here’s why we might be hopeful: The opportunities given to the members of the Power Conferences will only whet the appetite for a greater loosening of the ties to if not outright secession from the NCAA. And that might mean greater professionalization rather than less. This monster can’t be put back in the laboratory, and the only real alternative now is to shred the last vestige of amateurism as defined by the complicated NCAA rule book. Once we face up to the fact that the revenue generating sports at these 65 schools make them primarily pathways to professional sports and sources of revenue, sometime incredible revenue, for the university, we will be able to uncouple the student from the athlete.

The recent decision pushes us one step closer to a time when the players on the field will not have to be enrolled as students in the institutions for whom they play. Players who want to matriculate at the university will be able to do so, but there will be no obligation to. Players seeking a degree will be admitted using the admissions standards applicable to all other students and they will be able to pay for their education – whether it takes them four years or eight – using their salaries. Fair market value might mean that the football player at Ohio State would be paid $60,000 a year while the basketball player at Kentucky would make $120,000. Gone would be NCAA supervision and in its place would be put a NBA or NFL style administration that would set rules for scheduling and playoffs, player eligibility, player compensation including insurance coverage, product licensing, etc. There would be no question that these player-employees could unionize.

Imagine the problems that would magically disappear: no academic cheating scandals, no players scalping tickets, no violations of arcane recruiting regulations, no hypocrisy of the “one and done” player. Also unnecessary would be the extensive system of academic support designed to keep marginal students eligible. In short, one answer is greater not less professionalization for a certain number of institutions whose past history and/or vaulting ambitions place them in Tier One. Expand the membership to 100 if you will though very few institutions other than the 65 will want to play the game given the costs of participation. [There are 350 other Division I institutions.]

Here’s another reason for hope, and it is focused on the other roughly 1,100 institutions that are not in the Power Conferences. What is encouraging is that the split between “elite athletic schools” and the also-rans has been made even clearer. And that offers possibilities for an end to the arms race in college athletics, one that has large, second tier institutions wanting to play with the big boys and many other schools in Division II and Division III imitating the worst features of big time college sports. A recent article in The Chicago Tribune reveals that the aspirations of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to become a Division I school has resulted in a 59% increase in student fees over a five year period. Students at SIUE pay yearly fees of $353 to sustain the athletic department. [By contrast, students at the University of Illinois pay only $34 that that figure has remained unchanged for over decade; obviously U of I benefits enormously by its participation in the Big Ten Network.] It’s difficult to imagine that institutions like SIUE will be able to sustain the cost of joining the elite, so it’s difficult to imagine many of the non-65 wanting to get their nose into the tent. Such a stark disparity between the have and the have-nots will hopefully lead to a ratcheting down of ambitions and expectations among the have-nots. One can envision a return to a more sensible and financially prudent approach, one that may restore some confidence in the idea of the student-athlete, one that most administrators and faculty would approve.

The college athletic experience can be a valuable one for many students who have no ambitions to play professionally beyond their graduation. And few are calling for entirely eliminating college sports at small schools. But one wonders whether this enriching experience requires the copy-catting of the approach to athletics at the Power Conferences. At a time when the American sports fans awaits the first year of a College Football Bowl championship, is it too heretical to ask whether we need national championships at the current Division II and III levels? Isn’t it sufficient for the college athletic experience to have a chance at winning the conference championship achieved across a reasonable number of games? Do we need early season inter-regional play which is often conducted so that a team can establish status when tournament selection time rolls around? Such changes in the uses of time and money may result in a reduction in the sorry incidents of student behavior in places, no matter what their size, where sports culture dominates the institution. It’s somewhat pathetic to see students at a small college in Iowa imitating their face-painted contemporaries who are part of the “Cameron Crazies,” the zealous undergraduates who follow Duke basketball.

We should endorse a recent proposal by the collegiate soccer community to split its season into two halves, a fall and spring schedule. The principal reason for doing so is to avoid games in inclement weather and an early winter championship game. But a stated side-benefit of such a move is a more compelling reason: such a change would mean the elimination of mid-week games which require time away from classes.

What may bring about this de-escalation may have less to do with the rightness of the cause than the inability to fund such endeavors. One casualty of  greater autonomy for the Power Five may be the curtailment of the revenue sharing arrangements in the NCAA that create a trickle down into the lower divisions of revenues from events like the Final Four, thus enabling smaller institutions to fund their own tournaments. The Power Five may want to keep all of the revenue for themselves. In the happy, socialistic world of the NCAA, some citizens are more equal than others.

Will the de-escalation of college sports in the 90% of the institutions that are not members of the Power Conferences have an unsettling effect on sports in American and on the student-athletes who attend these institutions? Not if a number of privately funded sports organizations are expanded or are called into being. One the one hand, the identity of the Power Conferences as the place to prepare for a professional sports career may put an end to semi-professional basketball leagues though it’s hard to imagine the dismantling of baseball’s long-intact minor league system. On the other hand, scaling down or eliminating sports at lower tier institutions may result in the formation or expansion of other avenues of participation: local and regional sports federations, sports academies, Olympic development programs. [In some individual sports like tennis or gymnastics this has been the model for a long time.] In the future an amateur athlete’s college choice may be determined by the campus’s proximity to a club or academy where the individual can train and compete. We cannot have nor do we necessarily want a European model where there is a bright line separating academic training from sports training, but the European model adjusted for American conditions should make us much less reluctant to take bold steps to establish some sanity through contraction and the “outsourcing” of some sports to independently financed operations.  A big factor working against divestment: schools need tuition-paying students and athletic teams bring student-athletes to campus who would go elsewhere to swim or golf or play lacrosse were it not for a program.  Another: the philanthropic ex-wrestler who would pull his alumni fund support if the wrestling program was dissolved.

The decision to grant the Power Conferences greater autonomy should be an occasion for a re-evaluation of all of college sports. The liberation of the Power Conferences from the coercion of the NCAA is welcomed if it leads to the liberation of all of the other institutions from the various destructive mythologies that govern the 65 teams and have corrupted the college sports experience. Abandoned by the universities in the non-amateur Power Conferences, a re-purposed NCAA might even be able to bend the realities of college sports toward the image of the amateur student-athlete.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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