Separate college sports from academics

Separate college sports from academics

June 27, 2010 

As a professor for almost 35 years, my role has been to convey knowledge and to help my students develop their abilities to use this knowledge to analyze and solve problems; to conduct research to develop new knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge; and lastly, to use my professional capabilities to help society solve its problems.

This statement of a university's mission has become a mantra for every promo run on athletic telecasts. It is interesting that the activity that receives the greatest visibility and publicity — intercollegiate athletics — does not fall within the accepted mission of a university.

Or as Lee T. Todd Jr. stated when he assumed the presidency of the University of Kentucky in 2001: "I didn't realize the university had an entertainment division."

I have long been a fan of college athletics. I understand the deep cultural connection the people of the commonwealth have with UK basketball. My concern is that present trends will eventually destroy everything we hold dear about college athletics.

It is time to raise the question: Should intercollegiate athletics as practiced at the major college level of the NCAA be divorced from universities?

In the 1960s, ABC televised a college football game of the week on Saturday. Friday was reserved for high school games and Sunday was the day for professional football. Beginning in 1979, with the birth of ESPN, television became the driving force behind intercollegiate athletics. There are now 35 football bowl games requiring 70 teams. On any given fall Saturday, we have a choice from as many as 20 college football games on television.

It is time to face up to the fact that Division 1 football and basketball programs have developed into the minor leagues for the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. However, unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA are unwilling to underwrite the costs of developing and operating these minor leagues.

The current drive to create "super" conferences in college athletics is an effort to generate and grab more television money. For what purpose? In August 2009, the 15-year, $2.25 billion contract between ESPN and the SEC was announced. An SEC school official was quoted as saying "We can use this to pay our coaches more and build better facilities."

What about the university?

University athletic departments are embarked on, to use a Cold War phrase, "mutually assured destruction." One school builds a practice facility. A competitor builds a bigger and better facility. And the insanity continues as jock-worshipping alumni and trustees fuel the arms race.

What has been the result?

■ Only a small proportion of the 120 major college programs breaks even or makes a profit.

■ Coaches such as Nick Saban, Mack Brown and John Calipari are paid well in excess of $3 million per year, more than coaches in the NFL and the NBA. Universities do not even have to pay their players.

■ One-and-done basketball players are making a mockery of the concept of a student-athlete.

■ With the mandatory contribution required to purchase the right to buy tickets, the annual mandatory contribution required to maintain that right, and the price of tickets, the average family of four is priced out of the market. Corporations, rich individuals and the tax-deductible luxury boxes they require have become the difference makers.

■ NCAA rules now require that, to be eligible after the first year, an athlete must pass a minimum of 6 credits in a semester, complete 18 credits within the academic year, 24 credits within the calendar year, and have a grade point average of at least 1.8. When the average GPA on many campuses is 3.0, these are not what you could call stringent requirements.

■ In pursuit of athletic success, many schools are admitting individuals who are socially unqualified. The number of college athletes arrested for burglary, assault, robbery and rape appears to increase each year.

■ The NCAA now allows a Football Bowl Series school to count a victory over a Football Championship Series school in its total of six victories to become bowl eligible. This has created grievous mismatches in which the larger school gets an additional home game of revenue and a victory and the outmatched smaller school gets a big payday.

It is time to have a calm, rational discussion of whether major college athletics and universities should be divorced. This must be decided by university presidents and university oversight boards because the NCAA apparently sees its job as keeping the dollars flowing.

William F. Maloney is an engineering professor at the University of Kentucky.

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