By Bill Hanna, UMCP/Urban Planning
The large photograph on the front page of the Washington Post’s (5 April 2014) Metro section says a lot. There stands the UMCP President, Wallace D. Loh, with a broad beaming smile standing next to several campus women’s basketball players in a celebratory mood thanks to the victory propelling the team into the “Final Four” round of the national championship. Did he smile so broadly when a physicist won a national award? (Maybe.)
Here are two short Loh quotes from the Post article:
“These laurels matter for U-Md. beyond its basketball fan base. Every college is looking for a way to stick out in a crowded higher education market. George Mason University enjoyed a boost when its men’s team made a surprise run to the Final Four in 2006. Butler University in Indianapolis capitalized on its men’s success in 2010 and 2011.”
“Students choose schools for many reasons, but one of them is the excitement of big-time athletics. … That’s the reality.”
So we recruit athletes to promote the school, especially to lure late-teens to our campuses not to learn but to get turned on by victorious sports teams. And victorious teams provide excuses to party?
I’m starting to connect some dots! For better or worse, Playboy has declared UMCP the 10th best party school in the country. And the Princeton Review ranks UMCP high among “Schools that Study the Least.” Does that lead to pride or shame? (Coming in first in the party competition is one of our neighbors, West Virginia U. Oh yes, WVU also ranked high with the “Study the Least” list.) We share this with the Faculty Voice readers so that they know how prominent Maryland has become.
I must note that my degrees are from UCLA some decades ago, but I still check on that university’s sports and feel good about victories. I even check on the Dodgers and Lakers – although their late night finishes thanks to the time zone differences are hard on my days-after. I’d say I was a sports fan.
Let’s look further into this university sports topic.
Are the male football and basketball players special? After all, many of the so-called student athletes are constrained: “Work for three years for no pay and no say in the NCAA. Watch coaches, administrators, networks and sponsors make millions while you’re prevented from making anything. Suffer limited transfer abilities, live under the thumb of coaches and administrators who can eliminate your scholarship at will. Have no influence over the medical care you receive. And suffer a final indignity when your labor subsidizes scholarships for athletes in sports generating no revenue.” (Donald Yee in the Washington Post, 6 April 2014)
The big university athletics news of late is the ruling by a National Labor Relations Board official, Peter Sung Ohr, that Northwestern University’s players are employees and therefore can vote to establish a union and, of course, if the vote is positive to do the establishing and beyond. Ohr’s argument: “That the scholarships are a transfer of economic value is evident from the fact that the Employer pays for the players’ tuition, fees, room, board, and books for up to five years,” he wrote. “While it is true that the players do not receive a paycheck in the traditional sense, they nevertheless receive a substantial economic benefit for playing football.” And: “During [the season], the players devote 40 to 50 hours per week to football-related activities, including travel to and from their scheduled games.” A full-time job. If to these hours are added 12 hours in the classroom and 12×3=36 hours of study and preparation that gets close to 80 hours a week! That is presumably why some athletes at some universities are directed to courses with minimal work and maximal grades. More from the report:
“The players on a scholarship typically receive grant-in-aid totaling $61,000 each academic year. The grant-in-aid for the players’ tuition, fees and books is not provided directly to them in the form of a stipend as is sometimes done with room and board. Because the Employer’s football team has a rule requiring its players to live on campus during their first two years, these players live in a dorm room and are provided a meal card, which allows them to buy food at the school cafeteria. In contrast, the players who are upperclassmen can elect to live off campus, and scholarship players are provided a monthly stipend totaling between $1,200 and $1,600 to cover their living expenses. Under current NCAA regulations, the Employer is prohibited from offering its players additional compensation for playing football at its institution with one exception. The Employer is permitted to provide its players with additional funds out of a “Student Assistance Fund” to cover certain expenses such as health insurance, dress clothes required to be worn by the team while traveling to games, the cost of traveling home for a family member’s funeral, and fees for graduate school admittance tests and tutoring.
That the scholarships are a transfer of economic value is evident from the fact that the Employer pays for the players’ tuition, fees, room, board, and books for up to five years. Indeed, the monetary value of these scholarships totals as much as $76,000 per calendar year and results in each player receiving total compensation in excess of one quarter of a million dollars throughout the four or five years they perform football duties for the Employer.
In sum, based on the entire record in this case, I find that the Employer’s football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within the Act’s broad definition of “employee” when one considers the common law definition of “employee.”
The ruling is for a private university – and presumably private universities in the future, but one can imagine that it could spread to the publics some years hence. The spread might lead athletes at some institutions to unionize but others not to. (Would the unionized athletes demand less practice time? Perks of intimacy?) There are also lawsuits about restrained competition, the use of likenesses in video games, and the handling of head injuries. What complexity!
The issue led to a poll conducted by Washington Post/ABC News; the right to unionize was fifty-fifty, and by two-to-one respondents opposed pay. It is interesting that with both items, Euro-Americans opposed the change and non-Euros strongly supported it. That is, white folks want their entertainers to perform in the future as they do today. (Source: washingtonpost.com/polls.)
If the Northwestern ruling holds up, that “The Employer’s Grant-in-Aid Scholarship Football Players are not ‘Primarily Students,’” revenue sports at universities may look very different in a few years. Maybe the players will constitute symbolically attached-to-a-campus semi-professionals. But the university and NCAA can and surely will appeal, and the decision can wind its way upward for reviews. The NCAA and its conferences quickly have opposed the ruling. After all, television rights alone, for men’s football and basketball, bring in the tidy sum of $18 billion – yes B, eleven digits, thus there are big vested interests. Will the courts analogize the student athlete situation with the baseball professionals who overturned the “you belong to me” reserve clause? So (as the wise Yogi Berra once said), it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
The full ruling can be found at www.nlrb.gov.
Is UNC Typical?
Are student-athletes in revenue sports students or athletes? Learning specialist Mary Willingham at the University of North Carolina, whose job it is or was to help athletes who had trouble with their classwork, has terrible tails to tell, both based on her interactions with athletes and the response to her reporting on the academic shortcomings of many athletes. The case is especially interesting because it points to the importance—or perhaps overimportance—of revenue sports embedded within university campuses.
She remembers a basketball player who came into her office for classwork help. She soon discovered that he could not read or write! “And I kind of panicked. What do you do with that?” she said, recalling the meeting. She then studied athletes’ academic abilities more thoroughly, reportedly discovering that deficiencies were widespread. For instance, she reports that 60% of the school’s athletes read at a fourth- to eighth-grade level. The university has challenged Willingham’s report. Might the UNC situation be unique? Doubtful. And I refuse to write about what some tutors in confidence have told me.
But at UNC and surely other campuses, keeping good athletes as eligible students is important, and so money and tutoring and perhaps other benefits are offered. In the ACC, the average academic spending per student per year is $15,893; for athletes, it is $96,948!!! In the Big Ten (well, more than ten), the figures are $18,881 and (hold your breath) $125,018. So per athlete with the switch of conferences and the commitment to keep up, UMCP may have to find about $30k more per athlete. Do we have the right values?
CNN collected SAT and ACT scores of athletes in the two revenue sports. The finding: “most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level.” (7 January 2014)
From the Chronicle of Higher Education (10 February 2014): “The NCAA has increased its core-course requirements for entering first-year students and toughened academic expectations for two-year transfers. But coaches continue to find loopholes for talented players. Meanwhile, the academic gap between high-profile athletes and the rest of the student body continues to grow.”
Some of the campus excuses can be found here.
College Sports Integral?
“At many of the nation’s most prominent institutions of higher education,” write our Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan with SMU President R. Gerald Turner, “sports are far more than just extracurricular activities or even campus spectacles. Contests in football, basketball, and often other sports unite colleges and universities with their students, fans, friends, and alumni, both in person and across the globe. Big-time college sports are integral to the identity of many institutions, including our own. However, rising expenses—and the pursuit of more revenue to support college sports—have become a destabilizing force for many institutions, regardless of athletic mission or program size….”*
“For many individuals, collegiate athletics is the most visible face of higher education. Men’s football and basketball attract widespread television coverage, endorsement deals, and multimillion dollar coaching contracts. [Three football coaches make over $5,000,000, and many others are close behind.] … Success in college athletics often improves name recognition and institutional prominence, and many believe that enrollments and donations increase as a result. Possible benefits aside, comparisons of spending on athletics and academics raise questions about institutional priorities and whether rising athletic subsidies are appropriate, particularly in the current budgetary environment.” (Delta Cost Project) Is this the right emphasis? If so, what about the pressures towards corruption? If so much rides on athletic team success, those pressures must be enormous.
*From Changing the Game: Athletics Spending in an Academic Context, September-October 2010. Kirwan and Turner were co-chairmen of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
What Is To Be Done?
The Kirwan-Turner report suggests these actions in an effort to “reshape” university athletics:
• Greater transparency: Yes, which they suggest includes spending on what from what sources, and they might have added the qualifications of athletes compared with the general student body.
• Strengthened oversight: But is there a conflict of interest between athletic successes (wins and losses) and the academic work of the so-called student athletes? That might include revealing which instructors give unearned high grades to athletes.
• Enhanced support of academic values: “Teams not on track to graduate at least half their athletes should not be eligible for championships.” But those not on track can be mixed with not-so-good athletes who are on track to achieve the required number.
• Heightened focus on amateurism: “Athletics programs should be organized to treat athletes as students first, not as professionals.” Not professionals, but maybe low-wage physical laborers? What about the proposals to reshape the revenue sports into professional minor leagues but allow the athletes to take courses?
Many athletes come to universities with little or no interest in academics, and some might not qualify except for their athletic skills. Writer Tim Tripp (www.sapp.com): “This past fall, a backup Ohio St. QB tweeted out, ‘Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.’ The grammar speaks for itself and that sentiment is probably shared by many athletes.” The sentiment is not limited to backup quarterbacks in Ohio.
Can you hear the cheers for the Maryland Pros, the team co-sponsored by a campus and the NFL? Go Pros, Go Pros! But will the campus put up the additional money? Worry not; NBA head Adam Silver apparently has offered to help with funding! From ESPN: “NBA commissioner Adam Silver is so intent on keeping basketball players in college for another year that he said the NBA might consider subsidizing athletes to make them feel better about staying.” Subsidizing the so-called student-athletes, or maybe as development-league semi-pros with college uniforms.
Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA team in Dallas: “Major college [officials have] to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete. It’s a big lie and we all know it’s a big lie. [A Development League] can do all kinds of things that the NCAA doesn’t allow schools to do that would really put the individual first. … We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education. If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe or just the first semester, that’s not a student-athlete. That’s ridiculous.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate to look to college presidents who are ultimately responsible for what happens on their campuses. As Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney puts it, “College presidents have put in jeopardy the academic credibility of their universities just so we can have this entertainment industry.” It’s up to them to end the farce.
Back to President Loh
If the hypocrisy ends and the revenue sports become symbolically and otherwise attached to universities but without academic demands on the athletes, will President Loh no longer express the joy of victory? I doubt that. After all, there are many enthusiastic supporters of professional teams in every major world city. Check out Manchester United, the Tokyo Giants, or even the local Washington Professional Football Team (avoiding the racist name). And I’ll cheer on the Maryland (and UCLA) semi-pro teams too.
NOTE: For what are perhaps the most incisive comments on “student athletes,” check out Jon Stewart’s recent segments here and here.
Mary Willingham, the learning specialist at UNC, is resigning. She surely was pressured to do so given the UNC officials who challenged her findings. Recently, the university prevented her from continuing the research. However, there are other voices that suggest widespread corruption of the academics. For instance, a former UNC football player who was kicked off the team in 2010 after a tutor did his term papers, called the academic environment for athletes a “scam.” And the former chairman of UNC’s African and Afro-American studies department was paid for a summer course he didn’t teach; all 19 enrollees were football players. We guess their grades were high. (Drawn from a Yahoo.sports release.)