The Battle Over the Purpose of College Athletics

Siena Athletics

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — “One, two, three – what are we fighting for?”


Readers of a certain age might recognize these lyrics from a Vietnam War protest song from Country Joe and the Fish.  (“Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam,” the song continues.)


In the current world of collegiate sports, with all this talk of brand-new subdivisions of football, the possible classification of athletes as school employees, and the roles of the schools, conferences and NCAA, the cry “What are we fighting for?” seems to apply perfectly.


It’s the one unifying question that covers the uncomfortable questions brought up by the Northwestern unionization movement, SEC commissioner Mike Slive’s effort to propose a new football subdivision for Divsion I, and the critique of the NCAA’s enforcement of rules.


“What are we fighting for?”



This week at the NCAA Division I Board of directors meeting, SEC commissioner Mike Slive outlined his vision of the “system of autonomy” for those 65 schools that comprise the members five conferences: the Pac-12, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, and ACC.


Generally speaking, Slive is proposing a change in the NCAA governance structure that allows the Pac-12, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, and ACC to have “autonomy” in setting their own legislative agendas.  They would be given special privileges in passing their own rules among themselves, and then give the rest of the membership the “option” to adopt them in some cases, or put up the matter to vote for the whole membership in others.


Slive, effecively, is saying that the autonomy he’s requesting only involves reforms that he wants to put into place that benefit student-athletes – for example, the $2,000 student-athlete stipend proposal that was already rejected multiple times by the majority of the membership of Division I. 


Is a more cynical game is afoot?


“Their ability to disguise self-interest in the name of any number of principles has been raised to an art form,” Princeton athletics director Gary Walters told Jerry Carino in a USA Today article talking about the stipend issue last year.   “When you see the NCAA president making $1.7 million, and that all of the (major conference) commissioners, many of whom are friends of mine, are making $2 million, where your treasure lies, so shall your heart beat.”


To say that Walters didn’t mince words on this issue, in regards to stipends, is putting it lightly.


“I believe the desire to pay student athletes is a bait-and-switch tactic which is taking place now under the name of student-athlete welfare,” Walters said. “But student-athlete welfare wasn’t considered at all — not at all — when the conferences expanded beyond regions.”


By this interpretation, it looks like the “bait” used by Slive right now regards the actions of two players, Kain Colter, former quarterback at Northwestern, and Shabazz Napier, guard of UConn’s national championship team in men’s basketball.


Colter, who organized the “All Players United” protest and is trying to make history in his attempt to form a collegiate football players union, seems to be motivated by a genuine concern and positive vision for the well-being of student-athletes, though some might question the methods and execution.


Same with Napier, whose chose his moment at the mike during the Final Four to say that, as a player at UConn, he sometimes went to bed hungry because he couldn’t afford food.  (This tails into a similar assertion was made by NFL running back Arian Foster, about his time at Tennessee, in a recent documentary.)


The trouble with all of these arguments is that they propose a goal which, basically everyone agrees with – student-athletes having a voice, and not going hungry while competing in sports for their schools – but offer radically different solutions, all of which involve spending insane amounts of money.


Why did 3/4s of the NCAA membership vote against stipends, flying in the face of the recommendation of Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, and a hand-picked leadership committee whose majority comprised of presidents of Big 5 schools?  Because they want to oppress the student-athlete?  Because they want to retire on the money they’re bringing in? 


That’s laughable. 


The overwhelming majority of the other 75% of Division I, not to mention Division II and III schools, are paying money to sponsor athletics.  To them, they see athletics as a complement to the educational process and are willing to spend some money to give the kids a great experience in competition.


The real reason they voted against stipends were grave concerns about the financial implications of such a move.

“Every school I’ve been at has hiked tuition drastically. So tuition is going up already $8,000 a year, and now you’re adding $400,000 (in stipends),” Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann said last year about the stipend issue. “You’re stressing the system. This automatically put most athletic departments in serious financial cross hairs.”


Stipends are a perfect solution for the 45 schools that can afford it, but a potentially disastrous solution for the rest.


Similarly, what about student-athlete welfare? 


Do FCS, Division II and Division III schools care less about student-athletes than the high-resourced conferences because they don’t spend millions upon millions of dollars on keeping athletes academically eligible?


The answer is – of course not.


Many FCS, Division II, and Division III athletics departments offer great resources for academic help, and many also have state-of-the-art physical therapy and training for their athletes, too, not to mention athletic facilities.


But Slive, Colter, Napier, and (it seems) everyone else in the sports media business seem to think that football is a self-contained unit, and that the football issues that plague Ohio State are the same ones that plague Amherst, Williams, Harvard or Morehead State.


The trouble is the sweeping solutions proposed by all three attempt to fix a business problem that only exist with the 25 or so schools whose generated revenues are greater than the generated expenses, and then apply them to the more than 500 institutions that are simply trying to survive in the college athletics world.


This is why Big 5 “autonomy” is a horrible idea.


It’s not because Slive and his fellow commissioners dislike student-athletes, or are evil people.  I feel like they are motivated in their stipend proposal by a genuine guilt for not giving back more to the student-athletes.


But the trouble is, in this way, the Big 5 ends up defining student-athletes as moneymakers – indirectly, the human capital which generates more money for the athletic departments and conference commissioners.


Defined in this way, it’s no wonder Napier and Colter want even more of that pie for the student-athletes, even if forming a union would be another solution that would place a prohibitive burden on many of the other 75% of schools that are not in the game to make as much money as possible.


But for the rest of the membership, student-athletes are part of the educational process. 


They are never moneymakers – they are human capital in which athletic departments pour resources in the hope that they are prepared for their real careers.


The rest of the membership lives in a cost-containment world.


Giving agenda-setting power and legislation-setting powers to a bunch of rich conference presidents and commissioners who don’t see student-athletes in the same way would be a huge mistake.


The Big 5, given their expanded resources, will always come up with solutions that suit their budgets and their revenue streams.  To them, a $2,000 stipend is nothing on the bottom lines of their expense reports, even if it might bankrupt athletic departments operating on 1% of Alabama’s overall athletic budget.


But what motivation does the Big 5 have, with “autonomy”, to ever cut costs?  The solutions will always involve spending more money that cost-containment programs, the vast majority of athletic programs in the NCAA, do not have.


There needs a way forward for cost-containment in the NCAA, and autonomy for the Big 5 is exactly the wrong direction in regards to keeping costs in check at all.


But Slive, Colter and Napier don’t have that on their agendas, as well meaning as they are.  Perhaps they should.