Why College Sports Are Impervious to Reform It's Simple; Trustees like Things the Way They Are

By Clotfelter, Charles | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Why College Sports Are Impervious to Reform It's Simple; Trustees like Things the Way They Are


Clotfelter, Charles, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


If Charles Dickens were writing about big-time college sports in 2011, he would have left it at, "It was the worst of times."

The year began with long-standing concerns about runaway spending, a bowl system that unfairly favors rich conferences and the exploitation of athletes. Then came a string of scandals at high- profile programs, among them Ohio State, North Carolina and Miami. Then the year concluded with shocking allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse.

Fans and commentators have reacted with disgust and a slew of proposed remedies, including revenue sharing, a playoff system for football, minimum graduation rates for tournament participation and putting players on the payroll. Some have even suggested spinning off athletic departments as independent commercial enterprises. Others advocate simply ending big-time college sports by getting rid of athletic scholarships.

This urge to reform is understandable. Unfortunately, history suggests that the prospects for fundamental reform are not bright. To see why, we need to understand how the problems came to be.

For more than a century, American universities have sponsored football teams that are, in most respects, professional. And for most of that time, big-time college sports have been subjected to criticisms every bit as vehement as those expressed today.

In 1922, Upton Sinclair wrote, "College athletics, under the spur of commercialism, has become a monstrous cancer." An exhaustive report by the Carnegie Commission in 1929 pointed to the temptations created by "the monetary and material returns from sport" and the resulting "distorted scheme of values." Other national reports followed in 1953, 1974 and 1991, leveling precisely the same indictment.

In this century, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports charged that universities had "allowed commercial interests -- television, shoe companies, corporate sponsors of all sorts -- to dictate the terms under which college sports operate."

Despite the consistent criticism over the decades, the problems of today's big-time college sports have remained remarkably unchanged. Only the dollar amounts are different, thanks to inflation and the tremendous commercial opportunities opened up by cable television.

As tempting as it is to blame greedy commercial influences in the marketplace, the real culprits in this persistent failure to reform have been, and remain, the universities themselves. …

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