You don’t have to live in Nittany nation to know that college sports are in a crisis, perhaps their direst since the one that led to Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention more than a century ago. The distinction between students and athletes in the student-athlete continuum is wider than ever before. Universities that once gained their identity through their sports teams — a quality that never sat well with the faculty and always was a source of quiet embarrassment to the administration — now are trying to live down the ignominy their coaches and sports teams have provided.
I love college sports and, like most fans, have turned a blind eye to their excesses for decades. I know athletes have special meals, or live apart in separate dormitories, or tool around campus in late-model roadsters they might not have paid for, or load up on easy courses, but the games were so much fun, the spectacle so colorful, the sense of belonging that college sports fostered so powerful and so positive, that I justified it all. Increasingly I can’t, and I sense I’m not alone.
Let’s stipulate before going forward that many college sports programs are as clean as the Ivory baby, that many athletes are stellar students, that athletes face greater pressures than many of their classmates and do so with intelligence and grace. Some of them end up in the Senate, on the judicial bench, in the operating theater or even in small towns where their experiences enrich their lives and those of everyone they touch.
Even so, college sports are overdue for a comprehensive overhaul, for the very pressures that some students handle so well are out of proportion to the value of their on-field endeavors. This jeopardizes the real reason academic institutions exist, which is to educate young people, not to provide cheers for the alumni or a cheap farm system for professional sports teams.
The word “reform” is often modified by the phrase campaign finance or health care, which should alert you to the danger inherent in the term. A reform is in the eye of the beholder, or more precisely the proposer, and so beware any huckster trying to sell a reform. That applies doubly to college sports, and to the so-called reforms the NCAA embraced recently. We don’t need a reform; we need to return sanity to a once noble enterprise, and here is where we should start:
l Recognize there must be equal weight applied to both words whenever we toss around the term student-athlete. That means universities should insist their athletes be students, not merely be roughly of student age and not merely grazing through classes. A college education is still the steepest ladder of social mobility in America, and a college degree is worth more than a college sports letter in all but a tiny fraction of cases. Every college president, athletic director and coach mouths the words in this paragraph. Let’s insist they live by them as well.
l Recognize that college sports today are principally motivated by money, and remember the Benjamin Franklin maxim that time is money. That’s why the $2,000 spending-money “reform” the NCAA promulgated last month is a canard. Its proponents argue athletes don’t have time for jobs — or for the normal college experiences — but a cash payment will serve only to separate athletes even further from other students rather than draw them into the mass of collegians. So let’s transform the money question into time and ...
l Slice the amount of time athletics consumes. In recent memory, teams played nine football games. Today it’s possible for a team that wins a conference playoff and then goes on to a bowl to play 14 games. That’s two fewer than a regular NFL schedule — and far too many. Pare that back to 10 and push the Ivy League, which plays 10 but can barely find opponents to schedule for competitive games, back to nine — precisely the number the last time two of its teams were nationally ranked (in 1970).
Athletic directors will holler that fewer games mean less money, but that may be the whole point. Less money might be salutary, relieving the pressure on colleges to pay $1 million or more for coaches’ salaries. Besides, the world could have survived without some of the more ludicrous matchups on the schedule, like Iowa’s September game against Tennessee Tech. In basketball, strip away least half the non-conference games; who exactly would be impoverished if Georgetown didn’t play Savannah State this month or if North Carolina didn’t play Monmouth on New Year’s Day?
That’s without considering the great unspoken, unreported and unknown: How much do you suppose these athletic powers pay their small-time rivals to get beaten up in these games, to fatten the teams’ records and to enhance the coaches’ stats so they can negotiate bigger salaries? (The University of Connecticut, with an endowment barely over $300 million, this season is dishing out close to six figures to a school with an endowment well into the billions. Why? To buy an easy basketball win.)
Then again, why do you suppose that only three of the 26 members of the Cornell hockey squad list a high school as their last team? (They all played a year, maybe two, of junior hockey or its equivalent before entering college.) Call me collect if you find a Division I college hockey roster where the average age of the freshmen is 18.
One more thing. It’s not only that the seasons are too long. (The college hockey season, now well under way, starts before and ends after the basketball season.) There are too many practices, in season and out. There’s no reason why a college lacrosse team should be permitted 48 days of practice in the fall. The lacrosse season is in the spring.
The longer season encroaches on student opportunities to travel overseas — and every respected university president today sees overseas study as essential preparation for today’s interdependent world. It makes it impossible for athletes to have the normal undergraduate experience that colleges claim, in many cases against all evidence, they now provide.
It’s time the hyphen between the words “student” and “athlete” represented the tie between the two roles, not the distance between them. We’re kidding ourselves if we think it does now.