Escaping the athletic trap

How college sports has led to an ‘arms race’ in which there are more losers than winners

College sports has long had its share of scandals, including rape charges against players and coaches, illegal payments to athletes, academic fraud and point shaving, to name a few.

More recently, a pair of high-profile cases—an antitrust suit against the NCAA by players seeking compensation for the use of their likenesses for commercial purposes and the National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern University football players could form unions—has many wondering, once again, whether the time has come to rethink the purpose of college sports.

None of this surprises Howard L. Nixon, whose book The Athletic Trap: How College Sports Corrupted the Academy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) examines how amateur college sports got this way and how it may ultimately save itself. Nixon, a professor of sociology at Towson University, says it’s up to college leaders and trustees to rein in an out-of-control system.

“People say, ‘The presidents and trustees—surely they all understand this,’ ” Nixon says. “Well, for some reason, they get it but they don’t deal with it. They don’t say what’s on their mind until they step down. That’s when it’s safe.”

A central theme of your book is the Intercollegiate Golden Triangle. What is that?

It’s the network of power and status and, of course, money in big-time college sports. This network lures presidents and other university leaders into the trap—an athletic arms race that promises institutional enhancements, higher enrollments, improved alumni loyalty, more financial contributions and higher prestige. So the purpose of relating to sports has less to do with the love of sports than with the chance to make money.

I always tell my students, “Remember, always look at the bottom line.” Then you understand the Golden Triangle. You understand the commercialization of modern sports, including the college sports business.

This is the driver. It has all the lure that draws presidents, trustees, athletic directors, coaches and others into the athletic trap. It’s the promise of all that money, the promise of all that attention, branding opportunities, and so on. I call it “the grand illusion,” because it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be for a lot of institutions.

As far as revenue?

Yes. People think there is a lot of money to be made from sports, but that’s true for relatively few schools. In Division I sports, only 23 out of the 228 programs could cover their costs without subsidies. Interestingly, 16 of the 23 that could cover the costs still got subsidies. What we’re talking about mainly here are student fees, institutional subsidies and sometimes state funds.

I recoil a bit when people talk about surpluses in programs that have a very substantial amount of the budget covered by mandatory student fees, for example. How can you talk about a surplus? And then when you talk about deficits, it’s like a double deficit. You are already paying for these programs and, then, on top of that, you are still not meeting your budget.

There is over a billion dollars in ad money for March Madness, for example, and the money gets distributed, but it still doesn’t enable these schools to generate a surplus—I resist saying “profit” because these are supposed to be not-for-profit enterprises.

There is money, but then you have the “Star Wars” arms races—the escalating salaries for top college coaches and athletic directors. And there’s also a facilities arms race.

Universities do the same thing with amenities to attract students, with fancy climbing walls and food courts and dorms and things like that. You get the best athletes when you have the best facilities, so you keep making better facilities, and that means that you have big capital cost expenditures. Yes, there is big money involved but, no, it doesn’t mean that schools are going to be putting a lot in the bank. Very few do.

That describes the difference between what you call the collegiate model and the commercial model. The commercial model is relatively small but it’s driving the bus, so to speak.

Absolutely. There’s a kind of class warfare taking place in college sports. The relatively few schools that are big-time and do well—the big names that we all know about—are getting greedier and greedier. They don’t want to share the resources and they don’t want to have the decisions affecting their wealth-share in the NCAA affected disproportionately by smaller schools.

I have this idea of a partition, based on something John Lombardi, former president at the University of Florida and the Louisiana State University System, once talked about. It’s called the super conference partition.

What is that?

We’d create university football corporations. You could do the same in big-time men’s basketball programs. You make them like university hospitals. They would operate semi-autonomously. They have to pay all their own costs—no scholarships. There is this loose attachment to the universities.

Everybody else operates in a new NCAA sector—more like Division III than anything else. Athletics gets completely incorporated into the existing university infrastructure. There’d be no athletic department.

So, these big-time programs would truly be self-supporting. And if they can’t be, then they have to revert to the other sector, the other partition.

And in that other sector you don’t have problems with conflict of interest because the compliance people would work in the university legal office. The trainers would work in the university health department, and so on. Then the non-revenue sports would be able to survive.

Those sports become the casualties when they are part of the same athletic department as the big-time sports, and the big-time sports are looking for more money. The reason that’s often given for cutting programs is Title IX, but I don’t believe it.

Why not?

At Towson, as at other schools, we have a disproportionate number of women on campus. We do our best to comply with Title IX, and the question had come up about dropping men’s soccer and baseball. But in a public forum on the issue, we learned that Towson was already in Title IX compliance.

So how do we explain cutting the programs? My explanation was that the athletic director, whose career hinged on success in football and men’s basketball, needed more money in those programs. He was already running up bigger deficits because he was bringing in a lot of his people—beefing up the coaching staffs and so on in these sports.

Where is he going to find the money? By cutting a couple of men’s sports. Title IX was a smokescreen. I just don’t see the evidence there.

In your section on reform you wrote: “If presidents are to have clout on their own campuses in trying to introduce reforms, the trustees will need to begin specifying that authority and oversight and responsibilities in their contracts.” Is that wishful thinking?

Well, it’s happened in a very spotty way and it’s fairly rare. None of this can happen without the support of the trustees. There is the case, for example, of Nancy Zimpher and Bob Huggins, both formerly at the University of Cincinnati.

Huggins was a longtime, very successful basketball coach there. The fans loved him—and you have to remember, the fans often are people who couldn’t care less about what happens academically on campus. But Huggins had done some things that were not good for the image of the university and his players performed poorly in the classroom.

When Zimpher came in as president, some of the trustees told her, “We want you to clean this up.” That’s a very unusual thing.

So Zimpher gave Huggins an ultimatum that he couldn’t accede to and he quit. But he was really on the verge of being fired. That’s so rare.

But look at cases where trustees have not stepped up to the plate. My book is oriented toward the status of presidents and trustees. It’s actually meant to be kind of a primer for trustees who really don’t get this exactly. Not that they don’t understand how organizations are run, but they are caught up in the honor of being a trustee and sometimes they really don’t understand their responsibilities.

That’s what led to the situation at Penn State, for example, where this horrible thing happened and the trustees were complicit in it because they weren’t getting the information. You would think they would want to know, that they’d want to have these things under control.

The O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA is now in its fifth year. Do you think athletes will ever be compensated for the use of their likenesses?

I think they may figure out a way to do this but maybe not call it direct compensation. But you can’t help tying that case to the recent NLRB ruling that said football players at Northwestern were employees of the school and could form a union. Both of them relate to the idea of amateurism. And both of them are necessarily going to disrupt the current commercial structure of big-time college sports.

The underpinning of NCAA sports is the idea of the amateur athlete—the athlete is not an employee. Well, it’s pretty hard to maintain that if these various efforts, legal and regulatory, are successful. How can you keep talking about the amateur athlete, and how can you fail to then provide adequate compensation?

But you make your bed and you lie in it, if I may be trite. That’s the world in which you put yourself. That’s what the athletic trap is about, too. You’re in that world and you have to figure a way out of it, or you will pay the consequences.

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