It’s time to remake the university athletics department

The athletics department — during good times, a blight on the university in the minds of many people within higher education — is under intense scrutiny in the coronavirus era.

Recognizing that few athletics departments are financially successful, the critics are demanding athletics bear an oversized burden as financial decisions are made about the 2020-21 academic year and beyond.

Kill some sports! Let go of all those coaches! Discontinue the payment of student fees to fund sports!

Some critics are red-hot enough to argue that the entire edifice ought to be torn down and all sports terminated.

It has surprised some people that one atypical college football season, which doesn’t even start for another seven weeks, would be enough to compel some institutions to trim the number of varsity sports they offer. More are sure to come.

And let’s be frank, if there’s no college football season, the light-touch trimming we’re experiencing now will become bludgeon-like axing; under such a scenario, schools will maintain football and men’s and women’s basketball with all other sports under threat. The need to remain compliant with Title IX will guarantee more men’s than women’s sports are eliminated. (The NCAA rules regarding 16 sports for Division I status would have to be eliminated or else the number of D-I programs would crater.)

The critics would be quite happy.

Yes, now is the right time to reconsider the athletics department on the college campus. But, no, it’s not time to end it. What I’m proposing here is a radical reorganization of college sports.

I’ve made no secret on this blog and elsewhere that I love sports and see tremendous benefits to them. I maintain in the university setting they play a critical role in campus life. I’ve experienced as a faculty member and as a student multiple “wow!” moments as one of the school’s teams won big games.

Saying that, I’ve also made it obvious I find the concept of the student-athlete ethically vacuous, with the NCAA and the many institutions operating under its aegis having long since surrendered their collective souls for the almighty dollar. Please tell me how caring for the student-athlete is consistent with, among other things, largely separating athletes from the student body; allowing athletic events to start as early as 11:00 a.m. or as late as 9:00 p.m. (or later); and supporting “voluntary” workouts during the off-season.

And, most egregious of all in my opinion, these athletes receive not a penny while collectively bringing in millions of dollars to the athletics department’s coffers.

With all of that as the set up, here’s my proposal for the 21st century university athletics departments.

Spin them off from the university. Let them operate as for-profit entities.

Under my plan, the university would no longer set aside any student fees for the athletics department. It would allow the athletics department to use university facilities (i.e. stadiums, practice fields, gyms, etc. free of charge), but it would bill the athletics department for tuition, room, board and the like, all of which would be based on the number of student-athletes on campus.

The student-athletes also would have all rights and privileges offered to the general student body.

The athletics department would be a business. As a result, it would seek to at least break even every academic year. It could accept whatever sponsorship deals it wanted; it could work with the other schools that also are now for-profit entities on television deals; it could offer as many sports as it wanted, provided it remained within the legalities of Title IX; it could arrange its own championship tournaments; and it could schedule games on whichever nights and at whatever times it wanted.

Oh, and it would pay every student-athlete a salary; it would be up to the department’s leaders and the athlete (working with his/her legal advisor) to determine that fee. For example, the starting quarterback on the football team might receive $10,000 a year and the top setter on the women’s volleyball team might receive $2,000.

Let the market decide. There would be no minimum or maximum salary, just the requirement that every student-athlete be paid. The student-athletes also could earn additional money through endorsements, coaching and other jobs, which they could hold at any point throughout the year.

If the athletics department at the University of Southern California, which I pick because it’s where I earned my BA degree, could financially support football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s baseball, women’s lacrosse, women’s volleyball, women’s tennis and women’s golf, great. Those would be the only sports it offered. If the athletics department at the University of Alabama could support football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s baseball, women’s softball, women’s golf, women’s soccer and women’s gymnastics, great. Those would the the sports programs there. (In both hypothetical examples here, I’m presuming compliance with Title IX. Any error in that area is unintentional.)

As mentioned above, gone would be the days of the NCAA-mandated 16 sports to be considered a Division I program. And speaking of the NCAA…

The NCAA would resemble the headquarters of professional sports leagues in North America. It would mete out suspensions for players who, say, delivered an illegal tackle in a football game or who used performance-enhancing drugs. It would hand out the championship trophies. It would assist the various athletics departments with legal or other advice. It would heavily promote the institutions and the sports those schools offer.

It would discontinue reporting graduation rates because under my plan no student-athlete at a for-profit athletics department would be required to maintain a certain GPA or to continue progress toward a degree. If Joe Smith leaves Ohio State after three years in order to become a professional football player having never taken one class, fine. If John Smith leaves Michigan after playing baseball for four years — and, yes, four years would remain the maximum number of years an athlete could remain on campus (bye-bye redshirt years) — with a degree in finance, more power to him.

I anticipate maybe 50-60 athletics departments could operate under this for-profit scenario. They already are considered the “elite” athletics programs; so, although we won’t build that list here, we could rather easily identify the universities that might be part of this arrangement.

But what about the other 250 or so programs that currently participate at the top level of at least a few sports?

Sorry, critics, but we’re not getting rid of them.

They would largely continue to operate as they are now with some important changes.

Like the “elite” institutions, they, too, would no longer be required to offer at least 16 sports in order to be considered Division I; rather, they’d be allowed to operate as many sports as they wished, provided they remained compliant with federal laws. They would no longer tap into student fees to assist in funding their operations. They would continue to use all university facilities without charge. However, unlike the elite, they wouldn’t be required to pay their athletes. They would continue to be accountable for graduation rates, progress toward a degree and the like. They would be compelled to schedule sports events at reasonable times — not earlier than noon on the weekends and not later than 7:30 on any night.

My two-tiered structure for athletics departments, for which I’ve provided only a streamlined overview of how they would be run, isn’t perfect. Hey, professional sports aren’t perfect, so let’s get rid of that ideal in this conversation.

However, I’ve established a framework for getting rid of the nonsensical “amateur” athletes concept that continues to govern college sports. I’ve allowed the biggest of the big athletics departments to more effectively govern their actions. I’ve suspended the 16-sports rule.

A final point: This is a radical change to college sports. As such, I’m advocating a 4-year transition cycle that would become fully operational with the 2023-24 academic year.

So, let’s do it.

3 thoughts on “It’s time to remake the university athletics department”

  1. The red shirt rule also applies to players who are injured and not able to complete a certain portion of their season…yes, MOST red shirt situations are to allow a player to develop/mature/learn about the position they are expected to play…but injuries also account for some red-shirted players. In my opinion, red-shirted players because of injuries should be allowed an additional year of playing. 🙂

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