5 problems to tackle in big-college sports

Last week, a panel of university presidents dealt with one of college sports’ festering problems by approving a four-team playoff for football. For years, critics have been calling for this kind of playoff, which is so popular in pro sports and the NCAA’s own March Madness.

To someone who has spent the past five years researching the business and ethics of big-time college sports, this change may be welcome, but it leaves five unresolved problems with college athletics.

First, a playoff does nothing to address the unsustainable economics of big-time college sports. The specter that haunts every athletic director and university budget chief is a continuing arms race in spending. Head coaches earn several multiples of what university presidents or state governors make, and there is no end to spending on facilities.

Second, there’s the exploitation of revenue athletes. Not only do college athletes have few of the procedural rights available to residents in the criminal justice system, they also are the only group of producers in big-time college sports who do not enjoy the fruits of commercial success. Economic studies show every draft-quality college athlete generates far more in revenues than the cost of a scholarship.

Third, the current system is built on abuse of universities’ nonprofit status. You won’t hear this often on talk radio or ESPN, but in the halls of Congress, the occasional brave legislator will contrast the commercial nature of today’s big-time enterprises with the reasons that Congress originally granted generous tax breaks to universities and other nonprofit organizations.

Fourth, there is the steady stream of rules violations, crime and scandal. Long before Penn State, these scandals have featured all sorts of bad acting, from impermissible phone calls to phantom courses to payments under the table.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, the current system too often sacrifices educational principles. Not only grumpy faculty, but also outspoken college presidents, national blue ribbon commissions and a host of reformers for a century have complained that commercialized spectator sports divert attention and resources from the educational aims of universities.

What reform can fix these remaining problems? Would beefed-up NCAA enforcement efforts do that? Will paying the players solve them? How about more stringent graduation requirements for teams to be eligible to play in postseason tournaments? Persuading Congress to exempt college sports from anti-trust laws so the NCAA could more effectively regulate competition? Requiring universities to issue detailed annual reports on athletic spending, academic exceptions and graduation rates? These are among the reforms proposed in the past year. Some fixes might address some problems, but there is no silver bullet out there.

Based on my own reading of this nation’s century-long love affair with big-time college sports and a record of reform efforts with an almost unblemished record of failure, I am not optimistic that universities or Congress have the resolve to fix these five problems. The passion for athletic success and the winner-take-all character of the competition shackle most efforts to improve the situation. Short of a court ruling against the NCAA or a widespread scandal, it’s unlikely reform will happen.

Still, the optimist in me hopes a few forward-looking universities might try to build support for some systemwide changes that reduce the compromises with academic principles while preserving most of the infectious excitement of college competition. We just might yet see surprising results. After all, few thought a playoff system would ever decide the champion of college football.

Charles T. Clotfelter is a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University and author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.” This commentary was originally published in The Atlanta Journal Constitution on July 2, 2012.