The Future of ‘Other’ College Sports

Ohio State football players and fans celebrate their championship win, January 12, 2015.
When high-profile stars get paid, will real amateurs suffer?

This weekend, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is gathering outside Washington, D.C., for its annual convention. The weather outside is cold, but the debate inside is likely to get quite heated, as the major conference commissioners embark on a series of decisions that could shake the very foundations of Division I (D1) sports.

Most of the coverage of the meeting is centering on money. In light of recent rulings that D1 (the highest level) football and men’s-basketball players can no longer be denied a share of the revenues their efforts generate, which schools are going to start paying athletes, and how much?

But in fact there is a bigger story here, and a thornier question the NCAA must confront: How can the association keep the looming professionalization of revenue-generating programs from decimating the non-revenue-generating sports, and indeed the very spirit of amateur athletics?

First, a little background. In August, a federal court in O’Bannon v. NCAA found the NCAA in violation of antitrust laws for barring athletes from receiving compensation in addition to their athletic scholarships. In response to this ruling, the NCAA granted its member schools the latitude to decide for themselves whether to give their varsity athletes more. The University of Texas, for instance, announced that it was prepared to pay its athletes an additional stipend of up to $10,000.

This sounds great for the athletes who will be compensated for their hard work with something beyond an education. But anyone who understands the systemic dynamics of D1 sports knows that this will inevitably create a competitive crisis, as smaller programs try to keep up with schools that reap huge revenues from football.

Worse, this pressure will open a rift between big-revenue sports and others, mostly Olympic sports, that don’t bring in the big dollars. That’s because it will only be a matter of time before competition and litigation push the big-time athletes’ stipends ever higher, and athletic directors will be pressed to make up the difference by cutting the teams that the big-money sports once subsidized.

Is there any way to stave off this scenario? Maybe.

Over the past several decades, sports like men’s gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, and track and field have been decimated by the flawed implementation of Title IX. Hundreds of teams have been dismantled in the disastrous enforcement of gender quotas. But in a number of cases, alumni and sports communities have stepped forward to endow or fund their programs, ensuring their survival. This can serve as an example for how to deal with the present crisis.

If our uniquely American college-sports system is to survive another Title IX–level onslaught, this time financial in nature, we’ll need that kind of leadership and support at the individual, university, and national levels. Alumni who have benefited from participation in college sports will need to step forward and take ownership of their programs rather than merely sit back and bemoan their disappearance. And coaches of non-revenue sports will need to be open to discussion of more-sustainable models that don’t rely entirely on revenues from football and basketball.

As stewards of our sports, we need to plan and prepare for the future. Change can be traumatic, but it also presents us with opportunities to rethink and reevaluate to create a better future.

For example, non-revenue sports could consider transitioning to the need-based scholarship model that has worked so well for the Ivy League schools. The Ivies generally offer more sports programs than other D1 schools. And in many cases, programs will be able to offer more student-athletes financial aid under a need-based model than under the current scholarship-limit structure.

In the near term, we hope that the major-conference leadership will tread carefully as they consider changing their rules. But in the long term, we can’t expect that the interests of non-revenue sports will be best served by profit-driven organizations like the major conferences. So we may need separate governing bodies: one with the semi-professional model and paid athletes, and one for non-revenue sports that would place the highest value on the educational experience of athletics.

At the American Sports Council, our mission is to preserve and promote the student-athlete experience. We’re made up of alumni and coaches who know well the personal and educational value to be gained from the marvelous experience of college athletics. And we want to make sure that whatever happens in the big-money programs, that experience remains available to future generations.

The O’Bannon ruling has given athletes in big-money sports a new status. But the voices of the vast majority of student-athletes, who don’t play in front of huge crowds packed into giant stadiums, must also be heard. In many ways, they embody all that’s ennobling about amateur competition. If they can get up at sunrise every day, train, and play their hearts out, all for the love of their sport, the least we can all do is stand behind them.

— Bob Wuornos is a board member of the American Sports Council and founder of the Men’s Intercollegiate Gymnastics Support Program. As a coach, he has developed 40 Junior Olympic gymnasts who have gone on to compete in NCAA Division I. 

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