College Sports Earn a Penalty 

Change is needed for a system whose costs and values threaten academia.

Morally and financially, big-time college sports are out of control. But this age may be nearing its zenith.

The beauty and the absurdity of college sports has been roundly on display this winter in the Bay Area. Consider Jared Cunningham, a silky smooth point guard from San Leandro High, who is Northern California's highest-rated high school basketball player. Cunningham seemed to be on top of the world in the fall of 2007 when he announced that he had accepted a 2009 scholarship offer to play basketball for the Arizona State Sun Devils. This season, the senior was one of the East Bay's leading scorers, picking up athlete of the week honors, tournament MVP trophies, and ranked the thirteenth-best high school senior point guard in the country by the recruiting service But in November, just days before the official collegiate signing period, Cunningham parted ways with ASU.

Coach Herb Sendek's boosters whispered that his grades were a problem. Cunningham, however, says he carries a 3.3 average and was quoted in the Chronicle as saying that the scholarship offer from ASU had been rescinded. "I never got a good reason," Cunningham said. "I think they just found another guy that they liked more." According to the athlete, at the last minute the coach changed his mind, breaking the promise he had made a year earlier. Happily, Cunningham landed on his feet, turning down an attractive scholarship offer from Cal to sign with President Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, at Oregon State University.

Speaking of landing on his feet in college sports, former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, unceremoniously dumped by Al Davis, is now the head football coach at the University of Tennessee, where he earns more than $2,000,000 a year. Not only did he get a sweet deal with the Volunteers, but he got to hire his dad, Monte Kiffin, at $1,200,000 a year, and bring in a slew of other well-paid coaches, including a recruiting coordinator who will make $650,000.

Salaries like these are grotesque, and yet common at large universities (Sendek makes more than $1 million a year, and Cal football coach Jeff Tedford makes $1.5 million). The unwillingness of colleges or the NCAA to honestly face the situation is revolting. However, as with the once-mighty American banking system, big-time college sports might soon implode.

In January, the leadership of the NCAA gave its "state of the game" speech. The organization's leaders are worried, admitting that even though close to 90 percent of all college sports programs lose money, "universities are accelerating their spending on college sports" at a rate more than three times higher than the general university budget. Even when the money for this does not come from student tuition but from outside fat cats, the NCAA conceded that "funds raised for athletics in some instances appear to be coming from those that in the past went to other parts of the university."

It appears to the NCAA that the only way left to support these ridiculous salaries is to "monetize" the student athletes, all the while claiming to be mindful of "the potential dangers of commercialism gone wild." Since student-athletes are "amateurs," not paid professionals, they cannot accept payment for endorsing or advertising commercial products or services. But this does not mean that the colleges cannot make money off their "game pictures, films, audio or video of student-athletes that make it appear to a reasonable person that a student-athlete is endorsing a specific commercial product," a concern the NCAA claims it opposes and is monitoring. The NCAA must secretly know that the nonprofessional status of college sports is a charade and that it will face scrutiny if athletes are seen as "crass" advertisers. That would be "exploitation," the NCAA warns, and, horrors, we cannot have this.

What's truly exploitative is the relationship of college athletes to coaches and administrators. The athletes provide the surplus value that allows these leaders to line their pockets.

My favorite line in the NCAA's January address is the assertion that athletics and these salaries allow colleges "to find a proper balance that helps financially support as many participation opportunities as possible without swamping the principle of amateurism." Ask the young men who used to be able to get college scholarships in now-shuttered wrestling or swimming programs about this. College administrators fought equal rights for women in college sports as long as they could. When forced to balance numbers of male and female athletes, they eliminated smaller men's sports in order to keep big-time football and basketball. Concern for having "as many participation opportunities as possible" is simply not true.

I enjoy college sports. I still remember my thrill in 1964 when the Arkansas Razorbacks won the national football title and in 1994 when they won the basketball title. My son chose to go to Syracuse University because he wanted to be at a school with a major sports program, and he got to see his team win the NCAA basketball championship. Yet the best of college athletics can be retained without siphoning funds once earmarked for education to the arms race of coaches' salaries and sports facilities.

Fortunately for common sense, and for college finances in general, the whack-a-mole process that is running through the landscape today is sure to smack the protruding head of the extravagance of college sports and the greedy coaches and administrators who inhabit it. The current age cannot support the profligacy of the current financial structure. And the moral underpinnings in the relationship of coaches and colleges to these young athletes cannot stand the scrutiny that our present age of responsibility is likely to cast upon it.

We are likely to soon see implosions in large programs. It cannot happen too soon.


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