Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Reforming Intercollegiate Athletics

By Richard Vedder

Recently, I posted a blog complaining about the state of intercollegiate athletics. But what can be done? Given the popularity of sports, and the huge amounts of money involved given the entertainment value of revenue sports like football and basketball, there are limits probably as to how the system can be reformed, and the notion that a few brave university presidents will lead piecemeal reform is sheer fantasy. As Vanderbilt's President Gordon Gee said after modestly downgrading the athletic bureaucracy at that school, "if I tried this at Ohio State, I would be pumping gas today."

Here is a scenario that just might be possible. The Presidents of the Ivy League schools gather together the presidents of many academic respectable schools from several important athletic conferences, as well as a respected independent (non-conference) school or two. For example, the presidents of the University of Michigan, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Notre Dame, University of Washington, University of Texas, University of Georgia, University of Virginia, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, and Vanderbilt (to pick 16 schools) declare, along with the 8 Ivy League Presidents (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Pennsylvania) that we insist that intercollegiate athletics be constrained in several ways or we are going to remove our schools from our respective conferences. Some possible constraints:

* Seasons and training periods would be drastically shortened (e.g., 9-game football seasons plus one bowl game as a maximum; 35-game baseball seasons;
* No games may be played during examination periods, nor may any athlete miss more than 2 consecutive days of school for any athletic purpose
* Redshirting would be prohibited
* Maximum team sizes in football would be reduced to 65 (partly as a cost containment measure);
* The salaries of coaches will be constrained so that they would not exceed that of the President of the United States, or the President of the University, whichever is smaller;
* The college presidents would endorse an agreement to testify for the end of tax exempt status for any gift to a university for athletic purposes.

An alternative approach would be for the aforementioned group of 24 university presidents, perhaps joined by some other presidents of prestigious schools (e.g. University of Chicago, Washington University in Saint Louis, Georgetown, New York University, M.I.T, Cal Tech, Emory, George Washington University, Rice University, the University of Rochester) to appeal to Congress to insist that schools wanting federal grants adhere to these standards (I am somewhat weary of Congressional intervention myself because it opens the door to future federal interference).

Whether any of this could work, who knows? As long as millions of dollars in revenue are at stake, I am skeptical, but it might be worth a try. An alternative approach would be go the other direction, openly declare that "we are in the professional sports business", and start paying athletes more (and, by inference, coaches less). But remove tax exempt status for any charitable contributions to athletic departments, and also tax exempt status for such things as sky boxes in stadiums. Also subject sports operations to income taxation. And end the fiction of the "student-athlete" for the big revenue sports, football and basketball.

I am not against sports. I think athletic participation can build leadership qualities, instill discipline, promote hard work, and improve interpersonal relationships. But the Aristotelean golden mean is needed here, some moderation and perspective that is lacking at many of our nation's institutions of higher learning. This is further evidence that the socialization dimension of higher education is increasingly trumping the educational function on many campuses, and that should stop.

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