COMMENTARY: The Hypocrisy of Big Time College Sports

  • By Evan Weiner 

One of the more laughable quotes that have come out of the sorry situation at Penn State University in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky crisis was uttered by National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert while he was announcing sanctions against the school.


“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating,” said the guy running the cartel known as the NC double A or the NJC2A. While Emmert was uttering his remarks, other big time college football programs were laying low until they got clearance to raid the Penn State football team. Emmert and his cohorts at the NCAA, an august group of college presidents, chancellors and provosts who seem far more interested in money-making adventures than education at their respective schools, then gave them the green light to pick apart the Penn State football carcass.


Penn State’s players could leave the school immediately without having to sit out a season and lose a year of football playing eligibility.


The vultures flew over the campus and took away players. You see, for big time college football schools, it is not about education, it is all about putting yourself in the position to win games and get to tax-exempt bowl games and collect big dollars to support what are money-losing sports programs.


There was a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the University of Georgia was seriously reviewing the merits of 19 Penn State players that might fit into that school’s football program. Eight players have bolted for other programs including star running back Silas Redd. Penn State’s Big 10 conference business partners have decided the best way to help out is to waive Big 10 rules and let Penn State players join conference schools.


That is rather nice of the college presidents, provosts and chancellors who adhere to rules that limit the amount of money “student-athletes” can make from non-sports jobs and still cling to the notion of “student-athlete” which really is a term that is designed to keep athletes enrolled in a school from collecting workmen’s compensation.


It was one-time NCAA President Walter Byers who came up with the term and a Colorado court give Byers and the NCAA legitimacy in the 1950s by ruling that Fort Lewis A&M was not in the football business. The case involved a Fort Lewis player, Ray Dennison who died from injuries suffered in a Fort Lewis game. Dennison’s widow sued for workman’s compensation. She lost, the NCAA and member schools have been big winners for a half of a century.


Again the college poker club, the presidents, chancellors, provosts and trustees, has more important things to worry about than an athlete on a scholarship. They have to maximize that athlete’s value whether it is through TV contracts, ticket pricing, sponsorship and marketing partners or boosters.


Just in case you thought college football and college sports programs were built by industrious college innovators, brace yourself for a puncturing of a political talking point. College sports was built by someone else—the government.


The NCAA has roots in a 1905 Oval Office meeting between President Theodore Roosevelt and the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. College football was a brutal sport and 18 players died from injuries suffered on the field that year. There were calls to ban the game. A compromise was struck; the American Football Rules Committee was formed with the sole task of cleaning up the game.

Whether Roosevelt actually “saved” football is up for debate. The game still remains violent and there seems to be a pattern emerging of former players committing suicide at an alarming rate in the past few years.


The rules committee became the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of America in 1906 and the NCAA in 1910. Because the NCAA believes in something called “principle in amateurism” and looks after athletes by keeping them away from the temptation of professionalism and commercialism and looks after the best interests of the student-athletes, the group got a special tax-exempt status as a charitable organization under the Internal Revenue Code as well as Congress and President Gerald Ford in 1976.


The NCAA can also group school members into one entity and sell sports like men’s college basketball as one for the purpose of getting a TV contract under the provisions of the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act signed into law by President John F. Kennedy.


Big time college sports was built by the government whether people like it or not. They live on the bending of antitrust rules and laws by the United States government.


It probably is a good thing that Congress has shut down for five weeks to do whatever the business of the people is. College sports have been a bane to the group for years. In 2006, the question of why the NCAA has tax-exempt status reared its ugly head for the first time in years.


In fall 2006, Bill Thomas, a former House representative and a chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called into question whether the NCAA deserved the tax exemption. After Democrats seized control of the House in November, 2006, Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from Harlem, became chairman of the powerful committee and maintained that he might review the exemption as well.


During his tenure, Thomas became concerned that college sports, with their skyrocketing coaches’ salaries, the continued need for new and renovated stadiums and arenas and enhanced revenue streams from club seats and luxury boxes and ballooning television contracts was becoming too much like professional sports. In a letter to Brand, Thomas asked, “Why should the federal government subsidize the athletic activities of educational institutions when that subsidy is used to help pay for escalating coaches’ salaries, costly chartered travel and state of the art facilities?”


On January 7, 2007 on ABC’s “This Week” program, Rangel told host George Stephanopoulos, “I will be taking a look at all tax exemptions.” He added, “I certainly join with Bill Thomas on that, in taking a hard look at that as well as many, many other tax-[exempt] organizations.”


Rangel never addressed the NCAA’s tax exemption.


In November, 2006, Brand sent Thomas a 25-page letter making the case to the retiring congressman that the NCAA was dedicated first and foremost to educating its athletes. Brand cited recent academic reforms that strengthened eligibility standards and studies that showed the average SAT scores of athletes to be higher than those of the general student population to underscore his point.


Brand, a former president of Indiana University, also defended the high salaries awarded to basketball and football coaches, writing: “If the educational purpose of college basketball could be preserved only by denying the right to telecast the events — students, university faculty and staff, alumni, the institutions of higher education themselves and even the American taxpayer would ultimately lose. The scale of popularity and the media attention given to football and men’s basketball do not forfeit for those two sports the educational purpose for which they exist.”


The NCAA president suggested to Thomas that successful football and basketball teams attract nonstudent athletes to their facilities. Thomas seemed unimpressed.


“Federal taxpayers have no interest in increasing applicant pools at one school opposed to another,” he said. He also questioned why men’s college basketball coaches on average earn about four to five times the salary that women’s team coaches make. “What additional educational benefit do men’s basketball coaches provide beyond that which is provided by women’s basketball coaches?” he asked.


It would be rather refreshing if some adult in Congress did in fact hold hearings on the matter. Should a panel be convened, it should also address some issues that are in need of clarification, beginning with Title IX and rumors that many schools are cutting various men’s programs to comply with Title IX rules. In fact, many schools appear to be dropping certain men’s sports programs because of the rising cost of insurance — not Title IX.


Whether student activity fees should be going to the building or renovation of sports facilities at both big and small college programs, and whether non-athletes can use the athletic facilities that they pay for with student activity fees, ought also to be examined.


And there are additional questions, such as why college programs seem to have a bottomless need for additional income? Shouldn’t universities and colleges with big programs be able to support themselves financially? And should student fees go toward supporting money-losing programs?


There are numerous issues including whether college athletes should be compensated for their efforts, the issue of voluntary practices, insurance, pressure from press and broadcast outlets, the presence of advertisers and boosters on university and college campuses. Ultimately, Congress should consider whether athletes are really getting an education or just being pushed through the system, taking bogus classes that raise grade point averages, so that people like Brand and his successor Emmert can boast what a good job the NCAA is doing on education.


All of these questions can fit neatly into a hearing centered on the tax exemption issue. Congress has brought the NCAA before various committees in the past, but has done little to change the pro sports mentality of big-time college sports programs.


Don’t expect that to change anytime in the future even with the Penn State tragedy still fresh in the news cycle.


Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” He can be reached . His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available and Amazon.

This commentary:

was originally published on NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM and is reprinted by permission


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