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Nation should privatize big-time college athletics

Academics or athletics? That is the historic question big-time state universities must address.

Athletes are exploited, admission standards corrupted and taxpayer resources diverted. The NCAA plays catch-up with its regulations while recently giving an OK for colleges to contact prospects in grammar school! The general public seems to expect entertainment rather than education from its biggest colleges.

The most recent comprehensive investigation of State U athletics versus academics was published at the end of December 2008 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Journalist Mike Knobler analyzed data, as reported in the NCAA Certification Self-Study, from the top 54 U.S. college athletic programs.

His general findings show: "Nationwide, football players average 220 and basketball players 227 points lower on the SAT than do their classmates."

Special admissions percentages for athletes on scholarship are many times higher than for the rest of the student body. At schools like Rutgers, UCLA and LSU they accounted for more than one-half of the athletic scholarships.

Oklahoma University and the University of Florida -- participants in this year's football championship game -- ranked 42nd and 50th in football SATs.

Nationally, in the group of 54, the highest football SAT was Georgia Tech, at 1,028 and the highest basketball SAT belonged to Iowa State, with 1,087.

OSU and Louisville tied for lowest football SATs at 878 and Texas ranked last with 797 for basketball SATs -- all SAT score averages.

Can admissions standards for these athletes get any lower?

This is the big college equivalent of "pay to play." To be competitive, they have to accept the most marginal players.

Of interest to Buffalo area readers is a comparison of the University at Buffalo to Rutgers. Both schools have committed to upgrading athletics to big-time status, but there are vast differences in approaches.

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, may well be the poster child for university problems with big-time athletics. The school committed to a top 20 football program for the 21st century. But in the rush to athletic glory, many irregularities and problems arose: a questionable stadium expansion may need new taxpayer funds to complete; there were "secret" compensation packages for the coach, which caused a furor when revealed; and to save money, six Olympic sports were eliminated.

UB has taken a more cautious and orderly approach. Athletic administrators have committed to bringing high-quality athletics and academic contributors to campus. According to UB's Stephen Marth, sports editor of the student newspaper, student interest is very high and the campus has been energized by recent athletic successes.

A comparison of UB to Rutgers and Syracuse is worthwhile:

Average SAT of all students: UB, 1,199; Rutgers, 1,184; Syracuse, 1,185.

Average SAT of scholarship players in football: UB, 996; Rutgers, 938; Syracuse, 922.

Average SAT of scholarship players in basketball: UB, 1,004; Rutgers, 859; Syracuse, 858.

UB basketball shows much superior scores in the comparison and to the whole sample of 54. But scores for football follow the national pattern.

So what could to be done then? State U should consider privatizing big-time college sports programs. Don't expect a business plan in a 750-word column, but here are some salient points.

*Detach big-time athletics from their colleges.

Operate State U football and basketball through an independent private corporation, which will give the university a generous cut of the profits.

Created through private capitalization, these new companies could be funded by a coalition of private boosters, alumni and regional businesses.

They would be managed like any other business. Corporate stock could be issued and traded.

Privatization is not disruptive. Leagues can remain the same, as well as names and game sites. Most personnel will remain the same, with checks on excessive compensation.

A special benefit in this scenario is the opportunity for minority participation and ownership in these new corporations.

*Pay the performers.

Athletes would participate on these teams for three years, ages 18 to 20, as paid employees. As in the European system, only the best would rise from the ranks of college to the professional system. If a player doesn't make the professional grade, that individual can then start higher education to prepare for a new career.

While employed, these athletes would receive leadership training in business and communications skills, via the common practice of in-house corporate training. Hopefully great numbers of them would find careers in college sports corporations or in the various allied companies and media that work with State U. (Degree not required.)

Several major advantages result. State U makes a profit from its contracts. It no longer pours scarce resources into athletics instead of academics. The problem of exploited or unqualified student athletes disappears.

Football and basketball would continue to be varsity sports in State U, but modeled on Division 3 or European University sports. There would still be all the competition, good fun and development of life skills for participants, with a degree of fan interest.

Plans to place education ahead of big-time athletics will surely cause the sparks to fly. Old historical patterns die hard. Entrenched interests retrench. But after the sparks fly and there is change, then universities can focus on a different contest -- keeping America competitive in the world.

Silvio Laccetti is a national columnist, sports fan and a longtime university professor of social science. He can be reached at slaccett@stevens.edu.

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