Friday, July 20, 2012

Let's Call a Spade a Spade

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, a proposal has surfaced in the Big Ten Conference to give the league itself the power to fire coaches. There's a legal argument to be made here that this is nonsense - that no university can allow an outside, private entity power to fire its employees. I can only imagine how many contracts and labor laws, union or otherwise, this would violate. From the standpoint of university governance, it's a terrible idea.

But it does point to an underlying truth - one that universities might be better off if they would just recognize. The major collegiate sports leagues - the Big 10, SEC, Pac-10, ACC, and the rest - function essentially like professional sports leagues. They set rules, they arrange schedules, they determine membership, and they're run largely by a collection of their owners university presidents. Structurally and functionally, there's not a lot of difference between the Big 10 and, say, Major League Baseball - the only significant exception being that MLB has a license to act as a monopoly.

People inside higher education have known for years that top-tier NCAA Division I sports programs in football and basketball (and, to a lesser extent, baseball) are essentially professional minor leagues that don't pay their players. They trade on the built-in loyalty of fan bases (alumni), they sign big TV contracts and pay coaches big bucks, they even have some degree of player mobility (though without the structure of free-agency rules). They feed directly into the professional major leagues of their respective sports, which which they have close relationships.

If the Big 10 wants the ability to fire coaches, fine. Take the football and basketball programs out of the universities and set up a professional league. The league would be free to hire students as employees, paying them their tuition, fees, books, and even a salary. It could set rules and structures, and hire and fire coaches at will. 

Get all of this mess off the university's books, and call it what it is - professional sports. Instantly, all of the NCAA recruiting "scandals" disappear - because universities get out of the business of recruiting professional athletes. When we stop pretending that the players are amateurs, we can treat them like adults - let them have agents, let them shop their services around to the highest bidder. In the process, universities can stop subsidizing this nonsense - let the revenues raised by the sport pay for the activities of it. 

None of this is going to happen, of course. University presidents and would-be presidents have too much pride and prestige at stake in "their" teams. There's too much fear of alumni abandoning the institution and taking their donor dollars elsewhere - though I suspect that alumni would adjust, and a for-profit sports enterprise doesn't need donations, does it? In short, there are too many people in positions of power who are profiting hugely from the status quo. 

Which is a shame, because big-time "college" sports has far more downside than upside for universities. Maybe if a few more university presidents get fired (and, we can only hope, indicted and convicted), we'll see some real change.

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