Editorial: NCAA’s pending rule change on endorsements is another loss for higher education

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

When it comes to college athletics, university presidents have every reason to be driving the steamroller, yet they continuously and haplessly end up in front of it.

Big-time college athletics could do much to help fund higher education, but it would require university presidents forcing athletic departments and their conferences to do so. Importantly, it would require presidents to stand up to their schools’ celebrity coaches and the donors who follow them.

Even during this pandemic, when universities are starving for funding, it seems that the disconnect between athletics and higher education will grow. The NCAA is poised to start allowing athletes to become paid endorsers. It will be a system that invites corruption, and generally will make the job of university presidents harder. Everybody seemingly will be getting more money, except the people trying to fund the academic institution that supposedly is the body that allows the athletic department to exist in the first place.

It is an odd situation, but presidents find themselves in it because of a series of losses. Here’s a look at a few:

• They’ve completely lost the public opinion battle on paying student-athletes. Many in the public think student-athletes are being treated unfairly. They’re not, especially compared with other American workers. Student athletes get compensated for their work, primarily through room, board and scholarships that usually amount to more than $50,000 per year. The current system allows student-athletes to have other jobs as well. Usually, it is a coach’s practice schedule and expectations that prevent student-athletes from taking those jobs. But, just like a number of other workers, student-athletes are prohibited from having certain side jobs. There are any number of jobs that judges, journalists, doctors and public servants, for example, can’t do on the side because it would invite corruption. Being paid endorsers ought to be a side hustle prohibited in college athletics because it will invite corruption. Donors and coaches will use the system as a way to create unseemly recruiting advantages. If college athletes don’t like the deal they’re getting from colleges, they can skip college and turn pro in any number of overseas or minor leagues. Or, they can just get over it. There are millions of American workers who think they earn too little and their companies earn too much. College athletes don’t have that market cornered.

• Presidents have let the NBA and NFL walk all over them. Both of those professional sports leagues have rules that stop 18-year-olds — legal adults — from being employees in their businesses. Talk about cheating people out of money. The NBA and NFL take tens of millions of dollars away from 18-year-olds who are good enough to begin their professional careers right out of high school. Yet, it is the NCAA who is constantly painted as the villain in sports. Can no one figure out how to paint the NBA and NFL as being un-American in what they are doing to young adults? Presidents certainly haven’t figured out how to do so.

• Presidents largely have failed at controlling athletic department spending. This is the crux of the problem. Athletic departments aren’t run like businesses. Business people largely keep score by how much profit their companies make. Athletic directors — who often do have a genuine interest in the success of students — largely feel they must keep score by the number of wins and championships produced by their programs. As a result, businesses have a motive to control spending, while athletic departments don’t. Athletic departments will spend every last dime they receive, if they think it could produce more wins. Presidents should regulate that mentality. They should band together and do what the NBA, NFL and most other pro sports leagues have done. They should institute spending caps. Create a formula that says athletic departments can spend X per year based on the number of sports the department has, the number of student-athletes it serves, the number of miles its teams must travel to compete in conference play and so on and so forth. The pro sports leagues already have shown that revenues from fans and from television networks don’t decline due to spending caps. College athletics would continue to rake in just as much money. But if big-time programs were limited to spending only $50 million a year, for example, instead of $100 million plus, something beautiful could happen. The excess revenue could fund higher education.

That is the steamroller university presidents should be driving. But it is hard to drive a steamroller when you are underneath one.

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