March 10, 2011

Major March Madness

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This Sunday marks the beginning of the 2011 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship tournament, which doesn’t mean much to most Cornellians. One year ago, however, East Hill was abuzz and America was captivated by the Big Red’s Cinderella run, when our non-scholarship scholar athletes became the first Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 in more than 30 years.

If you don’t follow college sports, you might wonder why last year’s run was such a story and how Cornell left the ESPN limelight as quickly as it entered. The reason is that today’s NCAA major conferences resemble professional leagues more than they do amateur associations. In fact, major college sports such as men’s football and basketball are structured such that players are athletes first and students second. The teams we cheer on at Lynah and Schoellkopf may not be featured daily on SportsCenter, but they are some of the few that remain truly amateur in Division I college sports.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge sports fan, and I hope I don’t get kicked out of my bracket pool for writing this column. I just find it hard to ignore how the landscape of college athletics has evolved such that “It’s All About the Benjamins” and not so much about the students. Consider Cornell’s opponent in last year’s Sweet 16 — the University of Kentucky. Kentucky spent $8.6 million on its men’s basketball team in 2009-2010 and profited $6.2 million, while Cornell broke even with a $925,269 budget. Three of Kentucky’s starters in the Sweet 16 game were freshman who left school and became top NBA Draft picks, while another graduated; four Cornell starters graduated and a fifth returned for his junior year. It’s a wonder we even gave them a competitive first half.

Other major conference basketball and football programs similarly function more as revenue generators and developmental teams than amateur squads. Academics are often an afterthought at best. In some cases, classes are an obstacle to work around — in 2006, Auburn football players received credit for sociology “directed reading” courses that existed only on paper, and in 2007, Florida State athletic tutors were caught giving athletes answers to online exams (in the apparently challenging course “Music of World Cultures”). These are exceptions to the norm, but it is no secret that major conference college athletes have diminished academic expectations. Reduced admission standards, study halls, tutors, arrangements with professors and light course loads characterize the NCAA’s modern “scholar athlete.” Clearly, the term “scholar” is applied rather loosely.

Before you accuse the players on these teams of sneaking into and cheating through college, consider they are actually the ones most disadvantaged by the system. It’s not just that they aren’t expected to be students — they really aren’t given the opportunity. A diploma is far from the only benefit of an education, and even the athletes that do graduate do so without having a true undergraduate experience (or a newfound addiction to caffeine).

Rather than acknowledging this, the NCAA makes it a priority to ensure students remain in limbo. Amateur status is secured by penalizing those who attempt to derive any benefits from their service. Recently, Ohio State’s star quarterback Terrelle Pryor was suspended for selling memorabilia and receiving a free tattoo for an autograph. On the flip side, the NCAA also endorses the abuse of athletic talent by failing to adopt meaningful academic and protective standards for students. One need only look at last year’s $10.8 billion March Madness T.V. contract to see how the NCAA prioritizes revenue over student interests. So, the NCAA allows massive profits and the professionalization of college sports, but it denies the athletes the opportunity to share in any of the wealth. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in Ives Hall, but it seems like Terrelle Pryor is a worker getting a raw deal.

Schools looking to join the prized upper echelon of athletic excellence are often caught in the crossfire. Months after celebrating its first trip to the Big Dance in 2009, SUNY Binghamton was implicated in a scandal that involved admitting academically ineligible students and others with criminal backgrounds; changing grades; enrolling players into  courses with sympathetic professors; and creating independent studies to retain athletic eligibility (consider the “safety school” stereotype reaffirmed). A similar scandal is presently unfolding at Coastal Carolina University. In these cases the schools paid a price for their actions, but at institutions in such major conferences as the Big East and the Big 12, similar practices are accepted and celebrated.

Even at Cornell, Athletics is a big deal. Coaches may influence admissions to a degree, and it’s no secret that athletes are overrepresented in Applied Economics and Management. At the end of the day, however, they are students as well. The Ivy League schedules games almost exclusively on weekends, so the impact of games on class attendance is minimal. Very few of those who don Big Red uniforms are destined for the pros, so sports are seen as more of a passion than an occupation (congratulations to exception Colin Greening ’10 on his first NHL goal, and don’t be surprised to see Nick D’Agostino ’13 in the NHL as well). Most importantly, student-athletes here come not for scholarships or perks but for the opportunity to receive a Cornell education.

I’m still filling out my bracket this weekend and rooting for my mom’s hometown Pitt Panthers in the tourney, but I will also be cheering on my classmates at Lynah Rink in their playoff hockey games. I see our hockey players as students but the Pitt starters as professionals. The NCAA can launch as many advertising campaigns as they wish promoting the “scholar athlete,” but it doesn’t change the fact that big-time college sports have become amateur in name only. Cornell might not be making another Sweet 16 run anytime soon (this year’s basketball season is proof), but I can rest assured our athletes are truly representing Cornell and everything it stands for. My friends at Pitt can’t say the same. If Pitt had a School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I’d hope students there would see the hypocrisy the NCAA employs in the name of profits, but at the expense of athletes. Let the kids play, but more importantly, let them learn.

Jon Weinberg is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected]. In Focus appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg