The governance of intercollegiate sports is an ongoing national embarrassment.
Just this month, dozens of major universities — including the University of Colorado — took part in an unattractive scramble to realign their conference memberships in an effort to maximize their television revenue.
While that greed-induced feeding frenzy was going on, the governing National Collegiate Athletic Association was hypocritically meting out severe punishment to Southern Cal largely because two of its “student athletes” had been accused of the same kind of self-enriching behavior that their school routinely engaged in with impunity.
The old ideal of the serious student who also is a fine amateur athlete has become progressively corrupted in recent decades, particularly in the top-rated football and basketball programs at roughly 100 universities.
As television revenues and professional sports salaries have soared, these universities have taken to offering scholarships to athletes who have little interest in obtaining an education and, instead, view their increasingly brief tenures in higher education as a form of unpaid minor-league preparation for their future professional sports careers.
In effect, universities now suit-up unpaid mercenaries in their school colors, then cash in on their efforts.
There is nearly a complete disconnect at some universities between their academic missions and the practices of their athletic departments. At worst, the system amounts to the exploitation of vulnerable adolescents who, in fact, are likely to end up with neither a college degree nor a professional sports contract.
For a variety of financial, cultural and political reasons, all efforts to reform this corrupt system have failed and, realistically, are likely to fail in the future because the NCAA is dominated by large public colleges and universities whose alumni and governing legislatures have little appetite for change.
Nonetheless, a significant minority of NCAA members are increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. In particular, such private universities as Stanford and Notre Dame have higher academic standards than most NCAA state schools, and they aspire to be seen more as peers of Ivy League colleges rather than of schools in, for example, the academically wanting Southeastern Conference that are increasingly dominating football (the sport where the big money is made).
These private universities nonetheless continue to partake in the system, perhaps because they feel they have insufficient leverage to change it; and surely they would lose alumni support if they were to follow the Ivy League in abolishing athletic scholarships.
In fact, these schools have an alternative worth considering: Stanford and Notre Dame could take the lead in establishing a national conference of first-rate academic institutions that offer athletic scholarships only to true student athletes, as defined, largely, by an iron-clad commitment to graduate with their classmates in four years.
An invitation to join this conference could be extended to other private institutions with both high academic standards and proud athletic traditions — such as Northwestern, Duke, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Brigham Young (which could substitute a suitable variation on the four-year graduation policy to accommodate Mormon missions). The three United States service academies might also be asked to join.
The 12th member of this conference, I suggest, should be my alma mater, USC, where I was on the track team in the early 1960s and on the faculty for more than two decades. In the last dozen years, USC’s academic reputation has improved markedly, largely because of policies adopted under its soon-to-retire president, Steven Sample.
Unfortunately, as a result of the current NCAA sanctions imposed on the university, Sample finds his excellent record sullied at the end of his term. But as the new president, Max Nikias, prepares to take office, he is well-positioned to turn the current crisis into an opportunity to create an athletic program worthy of the university’s emerging academic status.
Yes, some alumni would scream bloody murder at the prospect of USC no longer competing in the storied powerhouse Pac 10 and against football factories supported by various state governments. And yes, the quality of the football and basketball played in the new conference may deteriorate a bit as some non-student athletes decide to opt for Ole Miss and Florida State instead of Northwestern and USC.
But most fans will continue to pay to see the Trojans take on the Fighting Irish in the Coliseum, as networks will continue to pay to see Duke and Stanford tussle on the basketball court.
Granted — and I realize this is a major obstacle — the fans and networks may not pay quite as much as they might pay to see future pro players. Yet the schools in the proposed conference are well-endowed financially and, more important, should be willing to forgo a few dollars made off student athletes in order to regain their integrity and enhance their academic reputations.
An important ethical principle is involved here: Whenever one finds oneself part of a corrupt organization or group, and one lacks the power to change it, there is a moral obligation to absent oneself from that system.
James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Chair of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.