Returning College Athletics to College Students

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Category: Higher Education, Public, Sports & Law
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kansas city chiefs football gamesThere is a simple way to end the hypocrisy that is modern college sport and at the same time preserve the much-beloved pageantry of men’s college football and basketball.

First of all, we need to embrace the idea that college athletics should be a part of the educational mission of colleges, and not part of their “providing entertainment” function. Subject to the exception for men’s football and basketball set out below, participation in college athletics should be limited to regularly enrolled students who chose to attend their college free from the enticement of special financial support.

The first step is to abolish all athletic grants-in-aid (euphemistically called athletic scholarships) except for those awarded in men’s football and basketball. Except for a few pockets of fan support for college baseball and hockey and women’s basketball, the simple fact is that most sports fans do not care about college sports other than football and men’s basketball.

It is foolish for colleges to “hire” players for their “non-revenue” sports teams at great cost when there are so many regularly enrolled students who would be happy to participate on those teams without additional financial inducements. Marquette, for example, does not need to give athletic grant-in-aids to have men’s and women’s teams in tennis and soccer. Lots of current students would jump at the opportunity to be a member of one of those teams.

Obviously, the teams recruited from the ranks of the regular student body would not likely be as talented as those that are purchased with grants-in-aid; but what should matter more is that under this proposal regular students would have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of athletic participation, rather than simply have the option of sitting in the bleachers, watching their professional “classmates.”

For the vast majority of students, even those who devoted much of their pre-college years to competitive sports, college athletic participation opportunities today are pretty much limited to the intramural and club sports. The unrecruited varsity “walk-on” who plays a meaningful role on a college sports team has become almost as rare as the college football player who is awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Men’s football and basketball programs are exempted from the proposed grant-in-aid ban for purely historical reasons. Unlike the case in every other country in the world, at an early date in the United States colleges and universities, rather than private sector clubs or the state itself, assumed the role of sponsoring developmental professional leagues for men’s football and basketball. In this role, college teams in both sports came to be treated as the equivalent of the major professional sports leagues, at least with regard to fan interest.

“Big time” football schools have performed this function for more than a century, and having cultivated enormous fan-bases that extend well beyond the college community, it would not be feasible, or even desirable, to scale back the level of competition in these two men’s sports.

This proposal would obviously require a modification of Title IX, or at least its reinterpretation, but that should not be problematic. Title IX has from its beginning been about expanding educational opportunities and not about providing subsides for elite athletes.

Freed from a mechanical application of Title IX, this proposal would greatly expand educational opportunities. By eliminating athletic grant-in-aids in all other sports and by dramatically reducing athletic travel budgets colleges could expand the number of varsity and junior varsity opportunities for their students, both men and women. Title IX would still require schools to provide equal opportunities for male and female students, but the moneys spent on men’s football and basketball were no longer be part of the calculation. The money that would have gone to athletic grants-in-aid for non-revenue sports could be added to the institution’s regular financial aid budget.

Because “college” football and basketball are still inextricably linked to the idea that the players are students at the institutions they represent, scholarship players in men’s football and basketball would be required to remain enrolled as full-time college students, as they are now. Current eligibility rules could remain in place; players would still receive athletic grants-in-aid; and there would be no problem, at least from the perspective of this proposal, if the amount of the grant was increased to provide for additional spending money.

Schools with scholarship programs in men’s football and basketball could also operate non-scholarship teams in these two sports. Hence, Marquette could have both a scholarship varsity basketball team and a non-scholarship varsity team, each playing a separate schedule and likely in different conferences. While fan attention would likely continue to focus on the scholarship varsity team, the non-scholarship second team would give some regular Marquette students who enjoy playing basketball the opportunity to experience the benefits of participation in intercollegiate sports.

This proposal would return most college sports to students who come to college for the purpose of broadly preparing themselves for their future. It would take athletics away from those whose primary concern, reasonable or not, is for a career as a professional athlete. Superbly talented golfers, tennis players, and baseball and hockey players will find other ways to demonstrate their potential for professional careers in sport.

I know that some will object that this proposal will adversely affect those students whose only path to college is through a grant-in-aid in a non-revenue sport. However, I don’t see that as persuasive. There is nothing that will prevent a college from giving such a student regular financial aid if the student has academic potential as well. Alternatively, the school could take the money that would have gone for the athletic grant-in-aid and instead give it to an equally needy student with even greater academic potential.

This proposal could be implemented by voluntary action on the part of colleges and universities, either under the umbrella of the NCAA or outside of it. It could also be legislated into existence by Congress. However adopted, this proposal would benefit both athletics and higher education.

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2 Responses to “Returning College Athletics to College Students”

  1. Matt Mitten Says:

    Interesting proposal, but why continue giving athletic scholarships to college football and men’s basketball players (who have lower graduation rates than those playing women’s sports and most other men’s sports) if its objective is to make college athletics a more legitimate part of the university’s educational mission (which shouldn’t encompass providing entertainment)? It seems like eliminating all athletic scholarships is a better means of achieving this objective, or at least permitting them to be awarded only for those sports in which true “student-athletes” participate, which would be most sports other than football and men’s basketball. You’re saying athletic scholarships should be awarded only to football and men’s basketball players because these sports generate sufficient fan interest to justify doing so, which begs the question of why they shouldn’t be paid cash like their major professional league counterparts who provide a popular form of entertainment.

  2. Gordon Hylton Says:

    Given the historic popularity of big-time men’s football and basketball, returning them to a purely amateur basis would be extremely unpopular and, as a practical matter, almost impossible. For better or worse, this has been part of the entertainment function of many modern universities.

    If you read my post carefully, you will see that I acknowledge that there is no problem with paying football and basketball players above the cost of attending college. I personally believe that a proper understanding of “college sports” would include a prohibition on fixing wages in the entertainment sector. The education and entertainment functions of the modern university should be subject to different legal rules, as should the health care and research functions.

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