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Laslo Boyd: College sports so big, so corrupt — so not changing

Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, has been widely and justifiably applauded for the leadership that he has provided to higher education over a long career. Before he returned to Maryland to assume his current role, he had been president at both Ohio State University and the University of Maryland.

Kirwan has also been a highly visible participant on a number of national commissions and an authority on future directions in American higher education. He takes great pride, for example, in the progress that the University System has made in cost containment.

When I talked with him recently, however, he was not nearly as optimistic about his efforts as co-chair of the Knight Commission, an independent group established in 1989 to address the role that athletics plays in university decisions and priorities.

He used words like “indefensible,” “disgraceful” and “corrupt” to describe the current state of affairs in big-time intercollegiate sports.

Both the Knight Commission and Kirwan’s pessimism long predate the scandal that has so tarnished Penn State. While the specific horrors there are hopefully not present at other universities, there is a widespread culture in which the money chase associated with major football and basketball programs often overrides other values of the academy.

That means that different sorts of scandals are still out there just waiting to be discovered.

This isn’t really a matter of conjecture or speculation. Look at the list of major college football programs — USC, Ohio State, Miami, Michigan and North Carolina to name a few — that have recently crossed the line and broken the rules that they agreed to abide by. The lure of money was too much.

Appalling exceptions

Just to be clear, the great majority of student-athletes really are students. Most universities maintain a reasonable balance between athletics and academics. And most programs are honest. But the exceptions are appalling.

Much of what we read about, as in most of the examples just cited, are of universities that violated NCAA rules about recruiting “student-athletes,” of alumni and boosters funneling money to individuals and programs and of the lack of serious academic standards for some of the athletes.

Athletics is often described as great preparation for life, but the prevalence of cheating in so many of these programs makes you wonder what field they are preparing students for. Similarly, are the athletes really students in any meaningful sense or are they merely participating in the minor leagues for professional sports?

Kirwan does see at least one instance in which the Knight Commission’s moral authority has had an impact. Thanks to the public pressure that one of the panel’s recommendations brought on the NCAA, some teeth have finally been put in the rule that athletes need to make progress toward academic degrees while they are participating in their sports.

Kirwan cited, with real approval, the fact that the University of Connecticut will not be eligible to participate in the men’s basketball postseason because it fell below the required standard for academic progress for the members of that team.

Here’s the irony about the current reality of big-time college athletics: Only a handful of universities — those with enormous stadiums that they fill every week, that are members of a BCS conference and that benefit from lucrative television contracts — actually make money on sports. Most universities subsidize athletics through some combination of student fees and general revenues.

Put differently, they transfer money that could be used for educational purposes and put it into athletics. As budgets get increasingly squeezed at most universities, that tension is likely to become more pronounced.

Kirwan was very blunt in answering his own question about where the money generated by the few winners in the money chase goes. In his view, the prime beneficiaries have been coaches, who are often the highest-paid employees on campus, and conference commissioners. The salary arms race then spills over to those universities hoping to make the big time by hiring an expensive coach.

Finding the balance

There’s a very good case that intercollegiate athletics brings benefits to the life of a university. The question, however, is what is the right balance. For example, at the University of Maryland, the pursuit of higher sports revenues led to a series of decisions that has created a significant deficit in the athletic department budget.

Those decisions may have been made by people in the athletic department with the encouragement of prominent alumni, but senior university leadership had to sign off on them.

While Kirwan doesn’t express much confidence in the ability of the NCAA to rein in the excesses and doubts that individual university presidents can do much on their own, he is hopeful that eventually either a president or Congress will find a way to impose reasonable limits on the impact of money on intercollegiate athletics.

Looking at the recent track record of Congress, I am highly skeptical about that route to reform.

Given the money involved, this may be a genie that is impossible to get back into the bottle. Incremental steps, such as the penalty for a team not making sufficient academic progress, are much more likely than grand plans to have an impact.

Meanwhile, it’s not at all clear whether the public really cares that a system that provides great entertainment on Saturdays in the fall has serious pockets of corruption within it.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His experience in public policy includes government, higher education and consulting. His email address is lvboyd@gmail.com.