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Eliminate the Profit Motive

By Tom McMillen |


by C. Thomas McMillen

The real problem with major intercollegiate sports programs is that the NCAA is powerless to effect meaningful change in the finances of college athletics. If it tried to exercise its dwindling power to seek real transformation rather than short-term palliative measures, the most powerful conferences and colleges could simply leave the organization—and college sports would devolve into a Darwinian struggle in which only the richest programs would survive. But, in truth, there isn’t much interest in change—there is just too much money involved in salaries for coaches and administrators.

So, despite the horrific events coming to light at Penn State (and apparently less egregious scandals on other campuses), I don’t think the way the NCAA functions will change until one of these three catastrophic events occurs:

  1. Multiple athletics programs go bankrupt because of escalating costs.
  2. Student-athletes win court cases that give them full rights as employees, including the right to hire counsel.
  3. A multicollege gambling scandal that involves players, coaches, and boosters is exposed.

I am convinced that one, maybe all, of those will eventually happen­—and that the system will consequently implode. Then it will be a question not of what the NCAA will choose to do, but of what it will be forced to do.

Once it becomes clear that problems are systemic, and that the NCAA cannot institute fundamental change, Congress must force the issue. It has intervened in this way before, when, with the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, it granted the U.S. Olympic Committee a monopoly—so there is precedent. I would like to see legislation—with provisions for mandatory reforms—enacted to reinstate for five years the antitrust exemption the NCAA had before a Supreme Court decision overturned it, in 1984. This is the ruling that, in his dissent, Justice Byron White, a former college athlete himself, accurately recognized would lead to an escalating race for money: “No single institution could confidently enforce its own standards, since it could not trust its competitors to do the same.”

Such legislation would require revenue sharing among all members of the NCAA in the collectivist model that has worked so well for the NFL, whereby a significant portion of the pooled revenue is shared among the 32 teams.

It would allow the NCAA to again become a benevolent dictator, by giving it the power to approve all TV and radio contracts for basketball and football. In return for this power, the NCAA must enact major reforms, such as a fairer distribution of revenue that would depend not on win-loss records, but on efforts to control costs, including coaches’ salaries; the academic performance of student-athletes; and compliance with the provisions of the federal Title IX law.

If, within a year, the NCAA is unwilling to enact those reforms, then the Internal Revenue Service should treat and tax college sports as the big, cutthroat businesses they are.

What has happened at my alma mater, the University of Maryland, points directly at the dead end where college sports is headed. Recently the university cut eight sports teams because the cash-devouring giants of basketball and football could not keep up with the escalating costs of intercollegiate athletics.

Choices like that signal that the true purpose of college sports is to make money; such decisions will eventually destroy the grass-roots sports infrastructure in this country, and only the major sports will survive at the college level. Eventually, the United States will be unable to field a strong Olympic team. Maybe when, in a future Olympics, America wins no gold medals, we will have our “sputnik moment” and realize that college sports should not produce highly paid coaches and administrators in just one or two sports, but should provide opportunities for many. Sports for all, not sports for money, should be our national mission.

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Filed under: Opinion

Tom McMillen

Tom McMillen