How to Fix College Sports

There once was a time in America when an institution of higher learning chose to field extramural athletic teams with a single ambition: to further the institution’s educational mission. The now-arcane-sounding concept of the student-athlete—a pedagogical thesis rooted in the ancient ideal of the warrior-poet—was that physical competition sharpens a student’s mental faculties.

Vestiges of this crusty ideal still exist in pockets of academia, such as the Rhodes Scholarship program (one of the criteria for selection is “energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports”). But for every Myron Rolle or Bill Bradley (outstanding students and athletes), there is a George Stephanopoulos in a wrestling singlet or a Bill Clinton in too-short basketball shorts.

While we prefer our prospective professional quarterbacks to be more Andrew Luck or RGIII than JaMarcus Russell, at the college level, athletic production is completely untethered from academic accountability (just ask Julius Peppers or Morris Claiborne). Hooked up to a polygraph machine, no one in college sports believes that there is a consistent correlation between academic success and athletic prowess. Even Mark Emmert.

So what was, in the beginning, an earnest attempt on the part of America’s colleges to create well-rounded citizens has become something else entirely. Football and basketball eclipsed baseball as America’s national pastimes, and television contracts birthed cash cows like College GameDay and March Madness. And, lo, university athletic departments increased in budget and stature and in favor with fans and donors. College football coaches are the highest paid state employees in many states. Talented kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are flown first-class to far-flung places and treated like stadium rockers on Saturday and like indentured servants Sunday through Friday. Parents and hangers-on try to capitalize on the economic potential of these young men, leading to promises and propositions that place top-tier programs in jeopardy. High profile, high-profit men’s sports flourish while women’s sports cling to life by their Title IX fingernails. Because of political alliances and network contracts, students from Idaho miss chunks of class as they are flown weekly to conference games in Connecticut or Massachusetts. Oh, and Penn State University mistook their football coach for the Pope. To your casual sports fan, this mess is not new news.

My proposed solution to this complex problem is also not entirely new. But, I think, it is unique in its details.

Universities that compete in Division I athletics should spin-off their athletic programs. Here’s my take on how that should happen:

University athletic departments would be dissolved and reconstituted as non-profit “institutes” dedicated to athletic success. They would be like university-affiliated think tanks, such as the Hoover Institution at Stanford or the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Only instead of thinking about tanks, they would be strategizing about sports.

They would be run as donor-friendly, tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations with the former athletic director as the new executive director. Each athletic institute would appoint an independent board of trustees separate from the university’s board. They would maintain their non-profit status by reinvesting all “profits” (like a non-profit hospital does) in facilities, equipment, training, and performance incentives. Their mission statement would ensure that they remain classified as educational institutions (necessary for tax-exempt status).  Here is a sample mission statement: To train and equip men and women to achieve success, excellence, and prominence in athletic competition. The institute would be teaching its “students” how to become professional athletes in the same way the university is training its students to become professional accountants or social workers. Through course-sharing agreements and negotiated tuition subsidies, students enrolled at the athletic institute could also enroll full-time or part-time as students at the traditional university campus, if they want. Or, they can work a second job as a welder or florist.

In this new arrangement, athletes could be compensated as “employees” of the non-profit corporation. This is their primary job, and they should be paid for it. Their benefits package could include tuition assistance, financial counseling, health insurance, etc.

And this scenario would still be bound by Title IX. For every $10 million in gross revenue brought in by the institute, a men’s sport must be added. And for every men’s sport that is added, a women’s sport must also be added. The compensation structure for athletes in these less-lucrative sports would be subject to a baseline living wage multiplied by the percentage of a workweek required for the sport (50%, 75%, or 100%). In the case of the Texas Longhorn Institute, their $150 million in gross annual revenue would require at least 15 men’s sports and 15 women’s sports. The Alabama Crimson Tide Institute (the highest net income of any athletic department in the country) could use its $30 million surplus to open the greatest gymnastics complex of all time. On that note, a side effect of this requirement would be strengthening the USA Olympic training pipeline.

Universities and their affiliate institutes would set up licensing and royalty agreements to share a percentage of revenue generated by the institute’s activities (so the school would still receive ample financial benefit). The universities would no longer have split missions (academic faculty, rejoice!) and would no longer be fully exposed—as Penn State has been with its accreditation in peril—to risks and liabilities associated with the athletic program. The NCAA could fulfill its mission to provide accountability to athletic programs (sports and only sports) without the doublespeak and hair-splitting and hypocrisy.

Universities and their athletic departments already operate as de facto autonomous entities. Let’s correct the excesses of the current system by restructuring the business of college sports to reflect the reality of college sports.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.