'Reforms' Don't Fix Commercialization of College Sports

March 17, 1991|By D. STANLEY EITZEN

The "March madness" surrounding the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament reminds us that college sport, whether we like it or not, is commercial entertainment.

The NCAA recently signed a $1 billion contract with CBS for the rights to the men's basketball tournament through 1997. If a football team is selected for the Rose Bowl, it receives $6 million, which is shared with other league members. The most successful schools approach $20 million budgets for their sports programs.

This financial success has also brought wave after wave of scandal. Winning teams increase attendance, are televised often and are selected to participate in lucrative bowl games or tournaments. Losing teams, conversely, tend to have relatively poor attendance, are not televised and, thus, lose money.

Similarly, winning coaches receive all sorts of financial gain such as contracts with shoe companies (as much as $300,000 a year), television shows, lucrative summer camps, housing, cars and entertainment allowances.

The pressures to win, therefore, are enormous, resulting often in the recruitment of athletes unprepared for college studies, in illegal payments to athletes, and in a mockery of education by altering the transcripts of athletes, having surrogate test-takers, providing phantom courses and not moving the athletes toward graduation.

The NCAA, as the organization of schools involved in sports, is responsible for the conduct of most college sports. (Some smaller institutions are governed by the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association.) The rules that govern college athletics are made at annual conventions with each member school voting.

In practice, each vote usually has been cast by the athletic director -- which meant that during the time of great expansion of intercollegiate sport, the rules have been determined by the athletic establishments rather than by academic officials. The NCAA has been relatively powerless to control the scandals of big-time intercollegiate sport or to run sport in congruence with the goals of higher education.

The most recent attempt by the NCAA to address its problems has been the creation of a commission of university presidents to help in the reform and redirection of intercollegiate athletics. The Presidents' Commission has operated since 1984, but its impact has been minimal.

The 1991 NCAA convention offered hope of major changes directed by the Presidents' Commission. This time the major agenda items were the commission's, members of the commission lobbied actively for their proposals, and a number of presidents (about 100 more than usual) attended to cast votes for their institutions.

As a result, the commission was able to get many of its proposals approved. Richard Schultz, executive director of the NCAA, said passage of the reform package signaled a turning point: "What it indicates is that the presidents are willing to step forward and assume their proper role as chief executives of athletics as well as their institutions." Articles reporting the convention hailed a new era of reform.

But what were the reforms that the presidents "rammed through" the convention? How reforming are they? What are the consequences of the rules passed? And what was not part of the commission's package? In effect, did the Presidents' Commission and the NCAA attack the problems endemic to big-time intercollegiate sport in 1991 or did they, once again, tinker with the system without changing it?

The major legislation at the recent convention occurred in two areas -- cost containment and player-related issues.

* Cost containment.

Scholarships were reduced by 10 percent across the board in all sports except gymnastics, tennis and women's volleyball. Scholarship reduction in Division I (schools with the largest programs and most athletic scholarships) will be phased in for football and basketball over three years.

Effective Aug. 1, 1992, coaching staffs will be reduced in 33 sports. Football coaching staffs in Division I-A, for example, must be reduced from 9 to 8.

These reductions in scholarships and coaches will save the average Division I football program an estimated $500,000 annually.

The concern of the presidents and the NCAA convention delegates with cost-cutting indicates the primacy of money in the equation for these decision-makers.

A consequence of cutting scholarships by 10 percent is that at any one time more than 1,500 athletes nationwide will be denied the opportunity to compete on the Division I level. Those from low-income families kept from athletic scholarships may be denied their only chance for a college education.

Another effect of this action is increased pressures on recruiting. With fewer scholarships available, recruiting will become even more competitive, which will increase the likelihood of recruiting scandals.

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