College sports no longer a game; it’s a business

That’s crises, not crisis. The multibillion-dollar industry that college sports have become is facing a lot of them.

Today’s sports pages routinely headline some new scandal involving rule-breaking or cover-ups. Recently, the University of Oregon acknowledged major NCAA recruiting violations when its football team was coached by new Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelley. The week before, the Athletic Director of Rutgers was fired for covering up physically abusive acts against players by their coach. The week before that – let’s stop there. The list is endlessly depressing.

The pressure to win, to recruit the best players at any cost, and to generate more income every year guarantees the trend will continue. Top coaches caught in violations at one top school might be competing in bowls or March Madness somewhere else within a year or two. Athletic directors are caught between a rock and a hard place, afraid to come clean when violations are uncovered for fear of alienating alumni who demand a winner.

The scandals are nearly all driven by the accelerating flow of TV money into Division I football and basketball, and the disparity in financial returns between the top programs and all the others.

If there’s no new scandal headline in tomorrow’s paper, the odds are good there will be one about the destruction and re-assembly of football and basketball conferences. Nobody pretends there is any reason for Maryland and Rutgers to join the Big Ten other than the multimillions in additional revenue the Conference will get with access to the Baltimore-Washington and Philadelphia-New York television markets. If you have been able to track the changes in the venerable Big East Conference (was San Diego State, 3,000 miles away, ever actually a member?), you are ahead of most sports writers.

Nobody cared that alumni of Maryland, to cite just one example, will no longer be able to root for their team against traditional rivals like Virginia, U.N.C or Duke. Get over it, guys. It’s not a game – it’s a business.

But not, it turns out, a very good one. A 2013 report by the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research “confirms what a lot of college presidents have long feared,” says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education: “that intercollegiate athletics has become a financial arms race [that] shows no sign on slowing down.” Many presidents would like to pull back on athletic spending, he said, “but taking significant steps in that direction would cost them their job, because the constituencies for increasing spending are numerous and powerful …”

The Delta Cost project concluded: “The belief that college sports are a financial boon to colleges and universities is generally misguided. Although some big-time college sports athletic departments are self-supporting – and some specific sports might be profitable enough to help support other campus sports programs – more often than not, the colleges and universities are subsidizing athletics, not the other way around. In fact, student fees or institutional subsidies (coming from tuition, state appropriations, endowments or other revenue-generating activities on campus) often support even the largest NCAA Division I college sports programs.”

So we have an arms race going on that is not only making a mockery of supposedly amateur sports but is also actually taking money away from the academic programs that are the primary reasons colleges exist. Enter a new crisis that could really turn the whole Alice-in-Wonderland world of college sports upside down: student athletes are beginning to realize they are what makes all the money possible. When Ed O’Bannon, who played basketball for UCLA before going on to the NBA, saw his likeness in a video game licensed by the university, he decided he should be reimbursed and filed a lawsuit. That suit is proceeding at the same time quite a few football and basketball players and some coaches are saying they should be paid for playing.

That would certainly help end the hypocrisy endemic in Division I college sports. Can anyone really defend a system in which a college coach can make millions a year, but if an unpaid player on his team suffers a career-ending injury, he can lose his athletic financial future?

I am a realist. There is no returning to the “win one for the Gipper” days of true amateur sports in our Division I colleges. All I know is a thorough house cleaning is in order, and sooner better than later for all concerned.

Originally published 27 April 2013 on