The integrity of education in college sport: does the NCAA model compromise athlete welfare?

Published 14 June 2016 By: John Wolohan


Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) is the national organization that oversees postsecondary amateur athletics in Canada. With approximately 12,000 male and female student athletes and 700 coaches, CIS represents 56 Canadian degree-granting universities who vie for 21 national championships each year in 12 sports.

In June 2016, CIS announced that it wanted to “rethink” the way that it conducts the business of university sport in Canada.1 In particular, CIS wants to increase the national exposure of college sports in Canada on television, local media, and attendance. While the CIS did not specifically mention modeling itself on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) - the organization that regulates college athletics in the US - it is easy to believe that they will be looking south to copy certain aspects of the US model.  However, as this article explores, they would do well to pause for thought and consider how to address the scandals and exploitation that have accompanied the NCAA’s undoubted financial achievements.


The NCAA model

The financial benefits of the NCAA system are plain to see. The NCAA distributes its revenues, the majority of which come from its $10.8 billion contract for rights to broadcast the Men’s Division I Basketball Championships, to member conferences and institutions. Teams and conferences that excel in the tournament are generously rewarded, such as colleges in the “Power Five” Conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. It should be noted that the NCAA only controls the television revenue for the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which it distributes to the conferences based on how many games the schools in each conference plays. The NCAA has no control over football revenue. The conferences contract directly with the television networks and generally distribute that revenue equally among all the schools in the conference.2 As a result, the schools in the Power Five Conferences, because they have the largest most successful teams, are able to generate substantially more revenue than the non-Power Five conferences.

For example, during the 2014-15 academic year, college athletics generated over $2 billion dollars for the Power Five Conferences. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) distributed over $403.1 million in revenue to its 14 full-time member schools.3 Of that total, ACC member Syracuse University (the author’s home) received $24 million. Although that amount was below the $26.4 million average distributed to members Syracuse did not play in a football bowl game in 2015 and missed the 2015 NCAA Basketball Tournament because of an academic scandal at the university involving basketball.4 Both of Syracuse’s men’s and women’s basketball teams advanced to the NCAA Final Four championships in 2016, and the university’s revenue share should increase next year. The average payout by the ACC to its schools however was only third out of the Power Five Conferences for 2014-15. The SEC distributed $31.2 million, followed by the Big Ten at $30.9 million, then the ACC. The Pac-12 paid out $25.1 million, and the Big 12 was last at $23.4 million.5


Scandals and exploitation

However, the CIS might pause for some thought, as the amount of money involved in big time college sports in the US has led some schools to a “win at all costs” mentality and appears to be incentivising a spate of related scandals. Arguably, no school in the Power Five lends itself to this view better than Baylor University. Baylor, a member of the Big 12 Conference, is the oldest continuously operating university in Texas, and the largest Baptist university in the world. While the university has an outstanding academic reputation, it is – unfortunately - currently best known for its athletic scandals. In particular, in an effort to keep some of its athletes eligible to play football, the school failed to respond to a series of rapes and sexual assaults reported by at least six women students from 2009-2016. It is reported that the school went so far as to discourage the women from pressing charges against any of the players involved and that the local police actually keep certain files sealed so that the player’s names would not be leaked to the press.6

When the sexual assaults and cover ups became public, the university’s Board of Regents hired Pepper Hamilton, a law firm, to conduct a comprehensive review on the university’s response to the sexual assaults. You can read the full report here.7 In an attempt to shield the football coach, who had taken the team from one of the weakest in the Power Five, to a national power, the university first removed the President of the university, Kenneth Starr. (As an interesting sidebar, while a distinguished lawyer, Starr is probably best known for his role as independent counsel that investigated former President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal).

The Board removed Starr as President, but allowed him to retained his position as Chancellor and member of the Law School faculty. (Starr would eventually resign as Chancellor too). In addition, the Athletic Director, Ian McCaw, was also put on probation by the university. McCaw would also eventually resign his position. It was only after the increasing national spotlight and the increasing criticism into the way the university was handling the allegations that it suspended the Football Coach, Art Briles, and fired a couple of assistant coaches. When the Pepper Hamilton report was released to the public, Briles was eventually forced to resign from the university. To demonstrate the value Baylor has placed on winning football games, it was reported this week that there are reports that Baylor maybe reconsidering its decision to dismiss Briles and may now only suspend him for a year.8 For a full history of the scandal at Baylor see here.9

In the past year, Baylor is not the only school that has broken the rules to try to gain a competitive advantage. Mississippi State University recently offered a high school football player, Jeffery Simmons, a scholarship even after he was caught on video delivering several punches to a woman.10 The University of Mississippi recently self-imposed scholarship reductions in football because of NCAA violations and is still investigating allegations involving cash payments to first-round NFL draft pick, Laremy Tunsil,11 as well as academic and recruiting misconduct involving the women's basketball, football and track and field programs. The University of Louisville12 also self-imposed scholarship reductions in basketball because of recruiting violations involving providing prostitutes to high school recruits as inducements to come to the university.

Perhaps the biggest scandal involving college sports is taking place at the University of North Carolina (NCU). In 2014, the university released a report that found that more than 3,000 undergraduate students took more than 100 fraudulent classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department.13

While these paper classes were taken by students from all over campus, “they were especially popular among student-athletes, particularly those who played the ‘revenue’ sports of football and men’s basketball,14 who were steered to take the classes by athletic department advisers.15 In particular, the university found that that athletic department academic advisers were steering academically at-risk athletes into these classes as a way to keep them eligible to play sports for the university.

While the NCAA is still investigating the allegations, some people believe16 that it is unwilling to impose any harsh punishments (such as vacated wins and titles, postseason bans, scholarship and recruiting restrictions) against NCU – especially the school’s most prominent and lucrative teams – because the scandal involved academic courses open to the entire university community. In particular, the NCAA has publicly questioned whether it ought to pass judgment on the merits of classes at individual member universities.17 NCAA president, Mark Emmert, has said that:

It’s ultimately up to universities to determine whether or not the courses for which they’re giving credit, the degrees for which they’re passing out diplomas, live up to the academic standards of higher education.18

While this may be true, and no one really wants the NCAA more involved in the academic side of the university, by dragging its feet in this case, the organization seems to be disregarding one of its core principles that athletes should be students first, with sports being secondary. However, if the athletes are not even getting the promised educational benefits of their scholarships, it only reinforces the argument that the NCAA and the universities are exploiting the athletes for their own financial gains without any concern for the athletes’ overall education.


Thoughts for the CIS

As the above cases show, in their desire to put the best athletic teams on the field or court, it is easy for colleges and universities to forget that the real purpose of these institutions of higher education is to educate young men and women and prepare them for life after school.

As the CIS seeks to expand the role of athletics at Canadian universities, they would be wise to not only look at the money that athletics and television can generate for their member schools, but pay equal attention to the negatives of big time sports. If the CIS is really interested in keeping their colleges and universities in the business of education, and not big time sports, they would be wise to focus on the Ivy Leagues and not the Power Five schools. While the Ivy league schools (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale) compete in Division I athletics they made the decision in 1945 to ban the use of athletic scholarships.

In addition, while the Ivy League schools lower admission standards for some athletes, their admissions standards are still higher than any other conference. Finally, unlike the other conferences that schedule games to accommodate television and gain maximum exposure for their school’s athletic programs, teams in the Ivy League play most of their games on the weekend to ensure that athletes do not have to miss classes in order to compete in athletics. As a result, almost none of their games receive national exposure.


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John Wolohan

John Wolohan

John Wolohan is an Attorney and Professor of Sports Law in the Syracuse University Sport Management program and an Adjunct Professor in the Syracuse University College of Law. In addition to being one of the lead editors of the book "Law for Recreation and Sport Managers" by Cotten and Wolohan, John has been teaching and working in the fields of doping, antitrust, gaming law, and sports media rights for over 25 years.

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