I was on my college’s bowling team for a couple of years. I was one of the biggest UNLV Rebels fans during the heyday and am still a rabid fan of college basketball. Clearly neither of these make me an expert on college athletics. But I have also been around college athletics through my work and through my own personal connections with former players and with current and former administrators. So let me share my view in recent issues.
It seems like college athletics is at a crossroads, having to decide what model of amateurism will be implemented for key sports going forward. The shame is that for the vast majority of college sports and student-athletes, the model works just fine. Athletes are appreciative of the free college education, and enjoy all the benefits that come with athletics and school – time management, relationship building, leadership skills, and so on.
The one issue with the majority of sports is that they don’t make money. And that drives the focus on the larger revenue-producing sports. One question I have is whether we should care that these other sports lose money. Other programs within a college might lose money, but we fund them if we think they add value. I am of the opinion that these are good programs, that there is a benefit to softball, track, swimming, golf, etc. for the schools, and for the student-athletes. But let’s leave that discussion for another time.
More timely is the question of how to manage athletes through their career from high school, college and beyond. There are several models, such as the Olympic model, the college baseball model, college football and college basketball. Most folks are saying that we should move college basketball to something like how baseball works, where the athlete basically decides whether to go to college or to the professional ranks, and if you choose college you have to stay for three years.
I like that idea, especially given the fact that the NBA G-League is becoming a legitimate “minor league” for the pro league. Plus players have several other pro options overseas. It seems that we could then get college basketball to a more “traditional” state, maybe a little less money in the system given a step down in total talent level, but stability in the system should help compensate for that.
I am not sure that model would work for football, for several reasons: 1) There is no real established minor league system; 2) There are fewer overseas options; 3) The NFL doesn’t see incentivized to build out the system at their cost, when they have such a “good thing” going with NCAA football programs.
I am skeptical that the Olympic model will work for these sports, given the amount of money that the NCAA, the conferences and the schools make from sponsorship. The Olympic model would allow athletes to be compensated by sponsors. The tension in the Olympic system is that the athletes get categories “blocked” due to the larger USOC deals. That would happen even more in the college ranks as each party I mentioned has sponsorship deals, so the universe remaining for athletes will be slim (players couldn’t have their own shoe deal in college basketball, for example).
I do not envy the NCAA and other stakeholders having to make these decisions. I am hopeful that the extent of the issue and the focus and attention on it right now will cause these hard questions to be dealt with. I feel like we’ve deferred them for too long.