October 11, 2011

Standing Up for Student Athletes

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The world of college sports has been fundamentally altered over the past few years due to conference realignment, scandals and dramatic increases in television revenue, the Ivy League notwithstanding. Pending lawsuits and a major exposé in this month’s edition of The Atlantic contend that, in major sports, college teams are no longer merely partaking in games but are becoming rather big business. Most of the action has bypassed Ithaca — Cornell’s isn’t changing conferences, under investigation or negotiating a major television deal. But that doesn’t mean the University and its Ivy colleagues can ignore the hypocritical policies and practices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association or stand by while athletes at major programs are exploited. If Cornell truly believes in the mission of the NCAA and its ability to foster scholarship through athletics, it must advocate for the implementation of needed reforms. If not, it has no place in an organization that recognizes major college sports as a business in almost every regard but denies student athletes any fruits of their labor.Criticism of the NCAA is central to Taylor Branch’s “The Shame of College Sports,” which appeared in this month’s edition of The Atlantic. Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, illustrated how the NCAA has, throughout its history, acted as a self-interested cartel invested in securing television revenue but not protecting student athletes. While his conclusion that under the current system student athletes should be paid seems counter-intuitive and shatters the ideal of amateur collegiate athletics, evidence suggests amateurism exists for the most part in name only.Branch supports his conclusion by showing how the NCAA has increased revenue but failed to protect scholarship. It has dealt with academic issues quietly and behind closed doors, and at the same time punished students publicly for attempting to profit at all from their successes or claim any of the massive revenue they have generated. Punishments for coaches and programs that violate academic or protective rules have largely been absent.Interestingly, the phrase “scholar athlete” was coined by the NCAA to protect schools from workman’s compensation claims by injured students. Under the guise of amateurism, the NCAA has denied those same students due process or the right to multiple-year scholarships unconditional on injuries or athletic status.It’s particularly hard to picture student athletes as professionals at Cornell because the Ivy League represents one of the last bastions of college athletic amateurism. Scholarships are offered purely on the basis of financial need, and there is little revenue generated. Travel is regional and the lengths of seasons and numbers of games per season are limited, such that the Ivy football champion can’t participate in the playoffs and Ivy hockey teams start practicing weeks later than their ECAC foes.Further, academics are stressed and addressed by having games almost exclusively on weekends. Play is limited during finals and study periods, and student athletes are expected to take full course loads and graduate on time. Finally, the Ivy League recently addressed safety by limiting the amount of full-contact practices football teams can hold.Of course, it’s impossible to compare major football and basketball programs to Cornell and the Ivy model because of stark differences in revenue and the fact that major schools operate teams as businesses. The NCAA has shown no interest in limiting revenue or promoting scholarship on its own. The NCAA couldn’t promote amateurism even if it wanted to, NPR’s Frank Deford points out, out of fear that that were it to do so major programs would leave. Then the organization would lose vital television revenue and thus its purpose.So, universities continue to spend inordinate amounts of money on revenue-generating athletic programs, even as academic programs suffer. Large universities also still derive massive revenues from major programs without regard for the well-being of student athletes. A Bloomberg study found that 46 of 53 surveyed universities diverted money to athletics in fiscal years ended in 2010. Meanwhile, a University of North Carolina study confirmed that the NCAA’s measure of student academic performance is misleading and that the graduation rates of athletes lag behind those of non-athletes considerably.If the NCAA won’t address how its major revenue-generating programs have become professional in every respect except in their treatment of student athletes, the onus is on Cornell and other like-minded schools to take a stand. Cornell not only holds membership in the NCAA but also a financial stake in the college sports business — the Ivy League received $8,060,147 of NCAA television revenue in 2010 per the association’s revenue distribution plan.It’s simply not ethical for the University to claim its share of that revenue if it was gained at the expense of student athletes at major programs. The Ivy League may be one of two Division I conferences that could be considered amateur, but in this case, money talks. If Ivy League schools were to refuse their share of NCAA revenue, they would absolve themselves of financial complicity with a system that generates professional revenue but doesn’t share that revenue with the athletes who generate it, nor show any regard for their studies or well-being. If Cornell takes its share of that $8 million, it should at least be vocal in ensuring it was not earned at the expense of student athletes. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, composed of academics, athletic directors and sports journalists, has issued three major reports calling for major NCAA reforms.Most of those reforms, focused on containing costs associated with athletic programs and maintaining academic integrity, require collective action and have thus not been implemented — Branch described the results of the Knight Commissions as “largely fruitless.” Cornell and other Ivy League schools should serve as leaders in implementing such reforms across the NCAA, not just for themselves, but in the name of American academics and student livelihood.If universities with major athletic programs fail to support needed reforms or continue to ignore how their practices adversely affect student athletes, then Cornell and other Ivy League institutions have no business joining with them in an athletic association. Continued membership in the NCAA is an implicit endorsement of the shameful practices described in detail by Branch and Deford.In declaring that college sports “is not the NFL, the NBA — it’s not a business,” NCAA President Mark Emmert showed that he isn’t about to buck the trend of NCAA hypocrisy. If Cornell treats its sports teams as amateur programs and its athletes as students, perhaps differences with major programs are irreconcilable. Even if we want to work them out, accepting any money from the NCAA in the interim is unacceptable. If Ivy League schools continue to promote an amateur ideal amongst themselves but also continue to join with and reap the benefits of schools exploiting student athletes, that’s shameful in itself.

Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg