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To Have and Have Not

August 28, 2003

Heather Heilman
hheilman@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

Almost 100 years after the blood, sweat and tears of college sports were institutionalized, some say it's time to make fundamental changes in the way intercollegiate athletics operates.

In 1905, 18 college football players died as a result of the extremely rough play that characterized the sport at that time. Some schools dropped football and there was a campaign to abolish football from college campuses altogether. Talk about the school of hard knocks. But that was before Teddy weighed in. President Theodore Roosevelt believed that Football--and sports in general--had a place at American colleges. Athletics built bodies and character and made for better students.

tulsum03_have_1So he called representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, where football had first been played, to come to the White House, and there he pushed--some might say "bullied" --them into reforming the game.

Thus was formed the American Football Rules Committee, which shortly evolved into the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, which, in turn, changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, in 1910. In giving his imprimatur to the new organization, Roosevelt stipulated that sports were to play a secondary, complementary, role to academics at American colleges.

But, a century later, many feel that goal has been lost. Too often, students are recruited solely for their athletic talents, Division I-A football and men's basketball seem to function as a farm system for the National Football League and National Basketball Association, and it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that it's all about the money-- except for the fact that most schools are losing money on athletics.

The Bowl Cartel

"We're diverting resources from what most of us would have thought were more central purposes of the university. That has to be a concern of faculty and staff and students," says Bill Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, former president of Princeton University and co-author, with James L. Shulman, of The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. It is no secret that intercollegiate athletics is a black hole in the pocketbooks of most institutions. Just how many athletics departments are in the red, however, is not so clear.

"We know that, across the board, all three divisions are generating about $4 billion a year in revenues but are spending about $5 billion," says Wallace I. Renfro, the NCAA's senior adviser to the president for communications. Current data, which may be unreliable, shows that about 40 of the 321 athletics programs in Division I are operating in the black; the actual number may be significantly lower. Of course, many schools are happy to subsidize athletics and not every institution is running a deficit as large as Tulane's shortfall of $5 million in operating expenses, plus a $2 million "allowable" deficit and $7 million in scholarships.

Thanks to the five-year-old Bowl Championship Series, however, schools that run Division I-A programs but are not part of the BCS are penalized half the distance to the goal. The Bowl Championship Series was created in 1998 as a way to crown a college football champion without having an actual playoff. The top two teams in the ratings meet in one of four bowl games--the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl. The bowl designated as the championship game rotates every year, so that in 2004 the championship will be decided at the Orange Bowl and in 2005 it will be the Rose Bowl.

Ratings that lead to the championship are arrived at through a complex formula that factors in number of losses, rankings in the Associated Press and coaches' polls, rankings crunched by computers and an assessment of strength of schedule. Beyond the complicated nature of the rankings, the most problematic facet of the Bowl Championship Series is that six of those eight bowl slots are reserved for the champions of the six BCS conferences--the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Big East, Pacific 10 and Southeast Conference.

That leaves two slots for all the teams not in a bowl conference--or less, if the two top-ranked teams are from the same BCS conference. Currently left out of the year-end hoopla and its associated TV revenue payoffs are 54 schools with Division I-A athletics programs, who share the same obligations as BCS conference schools to fill stadiums and invest in athletics scholarships, as well as the same economic pressures to pay competitive salaries to coaches and athletics directors. And despite their win-loss record at the end of the football season, only one or, at most, two of these 54 schools can play in a major bowl game.

Thus, even when Tulane--one of the non-BCS Schools--has a "perfect" season as the Green Wave did in 1998, the big bowl games and their big payoffs are still out of reach. And the bar for maintaining a Division I-A program is about to be raised. New requirements going into effect in 2004 require I-A schools to schedule five home football games and average 15,000 in actual attendance, as well as to increase athletics scholarships. It could sound the death-knell for some Division I-A programs; some thought Tulane would become the first victim following board deliberations in June.

How big are the paydays associated with the BCS and its bowl games? In 2000, each team in the Atlantic Coast Conference took home $8 million, while members of Conference USA (of which Tulane is a member) each received less than $1 million. The money comes from television rights, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales, and is shared by all the teams in the conference. "The BCS has led to the 'cartelization' of television revenue. And I choose my words carefully; I am an economist," says Malcolm Gillis, the president of Rice University, who would like to see a "complete dismantling" of the BCS system.

Rice, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, is, with 4,000 students, the smallest school to participate in Division I-A athletics. "I think it's an antitrust issue, though success in court is problematical," Gillis says.

You Say You Want an Evolution?

If the power to change the BCS does not lie in the courts, it can't be mustered by the NCAA administration, either. The BCS lies outside the purview of the NCAA. Teams and conferences negotiate their own television contracts and their own postseason play. Besides, the conferences and the NCAA itself are controlled by the presidents of the member institutions.

"This is not a league office and the NCAA president is not a commissioner of athletics," says Renfro. "This is a membership-driven organization. College presidents have to determine whether they want a football playoff system in the NCAA or not. I've been with the NCAA for 30 years and I've never seen a strong movement in that direction."

Instead, there is talk of making the equitable basketball playoffs more like the football postseason system. It seems unlikely that Tulane will singlehandedly be able to reverse this trend or change the BCS--columnist Ray Melick in the Birmingham Post-Herald likened this to "Saddam Hussein calling for the disarmament of the United States military." But Tulane President Scott Cowen has begun the process of marshaling the presidents of the non-BCS schools to talk about reform.

Letters from Cowen to presidents of both BCS and non-BCS schools went out in June, and a teleconference between presidents was scheduled for July 22. (To read the letters, go to http://feedback.tulane.edu. For more on Cowen's work to institute change in the national athletics climate, see "After the Vote" and go to the website coalition.tulane.edu.)

But it also seems unlikely, as more schools lose more money on Division I athletics, that the status quo will hold for long. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University, thinks the BCS could be prodded into change. "I don't think a revolution here is possible. I do think evolution is," he says. "Our main complaint is that it is an access issue. We feel that our program can be very competitive. I think it's not realistic to believe the schools that drive most of the public infatuation with sports are going to get more generous. But I do think it's very hard for them to push through new standards and not give increased access to the benefits of I-A sports to the schools that meet the standards."

A Growing Divide

Changing the Bowl Championship Series could help improve the financial well-being of the non-BCS Division I-A schools, but it wouldn't address the broader issues being raised in the current debate about the role intercollegiate athletics plays on college campuses--and the role it should play. There's no doubt that sports, particularly winning Division I teams, are big players in promoting public awareness of their schools. When a school's name appears in print or is mentioned in the media, it's often in reference to its sports program. And that helps build name recognition and attracts students.

Many alumni care passionately about sports, as evidenced by the many Tulane alums who recently rushed to the defense of the football program. But Shulman and Bowen contend that the current state of intercollegiate athletics has a negative impact on schools and students. In The Game of Life, they examined data about college athletes who enrolled in 1951, 1976, 1989 and 1999. They looked at academically competitive schools (including Tulane), some with non-scholarship Division III athletics programs, some with large Division I programs.

"Wherever we looked, what we found was a growing divide between the athletics enterprise as it's practiced today, and educational values," Bowen says. Their findings were not all negative. They note that athletes graduate at fairly high rates overall, although not male football and basketball players at Division I schools. They also found that recruited athletes enjoy a substantial statistical advantage in the admissions process, significantly more so than any preferences given to minorities or the children of alumni.

Athletes tend to have lower SAT scores than their classmates and to underperform academically even after those scores are accounted for, the book says. Athletes tend to congregate in certain fields of study, like the social sciences and business. Male athletes are more likely than their nonathlete classmates to go to work in business and less likely to become scientists, academics, doctors or lawyers. And while athletes tend to describe themselves as leaders, they don't demonstrate more leadership ability than non-athletes, the authors say. They are, for example, less likely to be involved in civic or charitable groups.

Among Shulman and Bowen's more controversial findings is that recruitment of athletes has no real effect on the socioeconomic or racial diversity of college campuses, and that winning teams do not give a significant boost to philanthropic giving to a school. The authors argue that sports have gotten so huge and demand so much time and energy from student-athletes that it can't help but detract from their education and isolate them from other students.

Baseball players who used to play 30 games a season now play upwards of 60. Teams crisscross the country to play each other, with players missing significant amounts of class time. Because of practice and game schedules, many of the most academically rigorous classes are simply off limits to athletes.

"Remember that we're talking about games," says Bowen. "They're supposed to be ancillary to the academic mission of the institution." Those trends show up even at Division III schools that don't offer athletics scholarships --but do allot spaces in each incoming class for athletes who might not otherwise meet admission standards. And that holds true even in lower-profile sports.

Bowen contends that, while athletics should have a place on college campuses, the way they currently function amounts to a waste of academic resources, even at schools like Tulane that run clean programs and have high graduation rates.

At fault may be the way American society overemphasizes and overvalues sports. "The United States is obsessed with sports, and it's only getting worse," says SMU's Turner. "That's what drives most of the problems of I-A that have to do with being on TV as much as possible, generating as much money as possible. The only thing is to win, win, win." A few schools have decided to avoid these problems by getting out of the system.

Swarthmore, for example, dropped its football team in 2000 after deciding that too many seats in each class were being taken up by athletes with lesser academic credentials. But the loss of Swarthmore's football team had less of an impact on the system than the loss of Tulane's would have. "There has to be a collective commitment to shift direction," says Bowen. "That's one of the lessons of the Tulane debate. It's hard not to be perceived as anti-athletics when you talk about that kind of change, but from my perspective that's the most pro-athletics thing you can do."

To Educate and Graduate

Not everyone agrees that the situation is so dire, but even the NCAA agrees that changes are needed--even as it is increasing the costs and requirements for participation in Division I-A. New NCAA president Myles Brand, the former president of the University of Indiana who was responsible for sending embattled basketball coach Bobby Knight to the locker room, has proposed incentives and disincentives for participating in postseason play based on academic performance. And the organization is in a period of strategic planning that will focus on the effect of athletics on academics as well as the way that intercollegiate athletics are funded.

"We want to look at the current issues that are engaging and sometimes confounding us, but also to look at the environment in terms of how it impacts higher education," says the NCAA's Renfro. "Clearly, one of the big issues is the integration of athletics and academics. We have to educate and graduate student-athletes. That is obviously a mission critical point if you want people to believe that Division I-A has value. Otherwise, it begins to look like it belongs somewhere other than higher education."

Double Standard

As far as the expense of running a sports program and the need for corporate sponsors to fund it, Renfro points out that most schools underwrite sports in the same way they would underwrite other extracurricular activities. And he thinks there may be a bit of a double standard when it comes to corporate financing on campus. There's little complaint if a company endows an academic chair or funds a new building for the chemistry department, but corporate funding of college athletics is seen as "creeping commercialism."

"I think in a lot of ways one ought to be optimistic about intercollegiate athletics," Renfro says. "We are making some real progress in terms of academic reform. I believe that over the next half-dozen years the result will be a change in perception that in fact student-athletes are coming to college, participating in sports at a high level, and getting a good education."

Nick Marinello helped report on this story. Heather Heilman is an editor in the Tulane publications office and can be reached at hheilman@tulane.edu.

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