St. Louis Sports Online

Eric Niederhoffer 

St. Louis SportsOnline

columnist & principal photographer

It's Not Whether U Win or Lose 21 August 1999

It's how you pay the game.

What is going on in big-time collegiate athletics? Over the past several months, much activity has dominated the media, all in preparation for another year of college athletics beginning with the Fall football season. (Isn't the start of Fall the third week of September?)

Item 1

As reported in a recent Chicago Tribune article penned by Andrew Bagnato, the NCAA is considering what to do about standards as a result of a Philadelphia federal judge's ruling that standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT unfairly discriminate against African-Americans.

One may ask, "What's a standard?"

This sounds like the line from an old Bill Cosby routine where Noah asks God, "What's a cubit?" God begins to provide an answer but falters and states that it doesn't matter and that Noah should get on with building the ark anyway.

Item 2

At Southern Illinois University, the football program has endorsed a campus initiative to create an organization to be known as the Saluki Belles. Their purpose is to shepherd potential recruits and new freshman players to make their campus experience more rewarding, increase recruitment and retention as promoted by the university.

Judging by recent headlines in the local newspaper, the "Belles" may want to change their name to the "Blues" and ensure that football players run the straight and narrow and avoid interactions with the justice system. What's a coach to do when he feels the need to act as surrogate father to some of his players?

Item 3

Nine University of California at Los Angeles football players have been suspended for the first two games of the upcoming season because the players provided inaccurate information to obtain handicapped parking decals. Parking on and off campus was easier for them with the special designation.

What's a player to do when every non-player associated with college football makes money off of their effort? Don't they deserve some kind of compensation other than a modest scholarship for tuition and fees, maybe room and board also.

Item 4

Six Ohio State University football players were ruled ineligible by either the NCAA clearing house or OSU Admissions officers. This is seen as a devastating blow to the Buckeye program by some who lament the loss of a quarter of the recruited freshman class.

Item 5

Purdue University is appealing sanctions against its men's basketball program, claiming that the process was unfair and that the punishment needs to fit the crime. At stake are a two-year probation, forfeiture of 24 games and reimbursement to the NCAA of revenues from the 1996 tournament.

All of these items have a common thread, the pursuit of excellence within the constraints of rules and regulations formulated by the NCAA, an organization charged with representing the interests of its member schools. One might see this similar to navigating our streets, roads and highways within the constraints of the posted speed limits, limits formulated by officials charged with representing the public's interests. Some get caught in excess; caught too many times and the penalty may be harsh. People don't like getting caught or receiving penalties.

Note that those who typically suffer punishment are the athletes. They may be expelled from school, charged with crimes, suspended from games, all the responses one can think of to point out to the offender that something had gone wrong. Little of this appears to fall on the coaches. When it does, a coach may be terminated after some comfortable settlement for his or her separation from the institution has been brokered.

But it's all part of the game as defined by the NCAA and associated conference rules and regulations. To not push the envelope would be un-American in nature, uncompetitive in spirit, and unproductive in pursuit of the big reward that drives the game. Not to mention the role of media, as they figure into the equation quite well. And of course, the role that the public plays, considering that their desires and interests have helped move college sports to where it is today.

The point is that there are so many questions to be ask of college athletics and not too many answers to those questions. But enough dancing around to keep Dick Clark in business for another lifetime.

The aim of this column is to ask some questions and provide some potential approaches. In doing so, I'll address the topic of college athletics in a manner outlined by Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times sports writer and columnist, who published a book in 1989 entitled "The Hundred Yard Lie: The Corruption of College Football and What We Can Do to Stop It."

Some of my thinking has evolved from the writings of several people, including Murray Sperber of Indiana University, who authored "Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports," Allen L. Sack (University of New Haven) and Ellen J. Staurowsky (Ithaca College), who coauthored "College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA's Amateur Myth," Walter Byers, former executive director of the NCAA and author (with Charles Hammer) of "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletics," and Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor and author of "Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports." (Click here for the St. Louis Sports Online review of the Sack and Staurowsky book. Reviews of Sperber's and Zimbalist's books are in preparation for St. Louis Sports Online.)

Two Models-One or Two Views

Consider two models. One based on athletics, the other based on work. Both involve payment that facilitates achieving a goal.

In model A, a student at Big U competes in collegiate basketball with a full scholarship that covers tuition and fees, room and board, and books. The student must demonstrate satisfactory progress towards a degree in order to remain eligible for basketball. In a sense, the coach controls the scholarship and the school controls the eligibility.

In model B, a student at Big U works full time in the research administration office making more than the minimum wage. This student has been pursuing a degree part-time in the hopes of getting a better full-time position in the same office after graduation. In a sense, the office controls the wage and the school controls the degree.

From the perspective of the system (Big U), the models are distinct, different, and cannot substitute for the other.

From the perspective of the students, the models are the same, either one can be used to illustrate their position within the system and their approach to their individual goals.

In model A, the student wants to pursue a professional career in basketball and may see student status as a minor requirement for participation in athletics. Performance on the court is important and determines the awarding of a scholarship. From Big U's perspective, the student status must be real in order to award scholarship support in the extracurricular activity, athletics.

In model B, the student wants to pursue a degree and may see student status as a major requirement for promotion within the organization. Performance on the job while important to the long-term goal, is secondary, but does pay for the education. From Big U's perspective, the student status in independent of the part-time employment.

Consider another set of models. One based on athletics, the other based on academic research. Both involve improving facilities on a college campus.

In model C, the athletic director at Big U wants to renovate the training room and practice field used by the football program, bringing it in line with other conference programs. Money will be allocated from the athletic department's budget through increased ticket prices and an increase in student fees. The AD justifies the expense as an integral part of the overall recruiting effort by Big U for not only football players, but as an outward sign to all prospective students that Big U cares about the campus.

In model D, the research director and professor of science at Big U wants to renovate laboratories involved in research, bringing them to current state-of-the-art standards. Money will be allocated by Big U through distribution of research overhead dollars and a matching external grant from the federal government. The RD justifies the expense as an integral part of the mission of Big U, important to the recruiting of qualified faculty and students.

The discussion of these models is important in that there are typically several differing views on system policies. When we study individual cases, there are usually themes associated with who is in charge, who determines reward for performance, who establishes the definition and makes the decisions and who is persuasive.


There appear to be many problems associated with collegiate athletics in the 1990s, problems that have been part of college sports from before the beginning of this century.

Consider some of the popular perceptions of college athletes.

College athletes don't meet admissions standards and don't take real classes once they're on campus. Someone else does the academic work or the coach articulates the importance of class performance on impressionable and sympathetic faculty.

College athletes receive scholarships for effort during competition, making them professionals even though we're told that they're amateurs, the term student-athlete is employed. The coach receives great compensation for many activities associated with the sport; athletes cannot legally receive compensation in excess of that defined by the NCAA.

College athletes don't stay to finish their degrees, but pursue the big money because of financial pressures.

What is typical of college athletes?

The National Basketball Association will entertain any prospect anytime.

The National Football League will take players usually after their third year.

Major League Baseball won't touch college players until their 3rd year. But MLB does draft high school prospects and cultivate them in the farm system.

Hockey, who cares? Soccer, who cares? Tennis. If they're good enough to turn pro, colleges aren't concerned.

Consider some of the popular perceptions of college coaches.

Coaches recruit potential students with one thought in mind, "will this kid make my job and program better?"

Coaches are here as long as they don't get caught doing anything wrong. When caught, they jump ship and continue their careers with a competing school or with the professional leagues.

Coaches influence the academics on campus, at least those academics that directly impact their ability to build and maintain a winning team.

Coaches are treated better than faculty; they command respect with the public and garner awards and raises with relative ease.

What is typical of college coaches?

Most have an average "tenure" of 6 years; not too different from unsuccessful tenure-track faculty.

Most coaches spend much of their time recruiting and acting as ambassadors for their institutions.

Most coaches never see the professional leagues.

Coaches in Division IA are paid salaries that rival or exceed the top campus administrator; salary packages for select coaches with NCAA bowl and tournament experience approach $500,000 to $1,000,000 and more annually. Included in these packages are compensation for conducting summer camps for young kids, speaking on behalf of the university, and performing fund-raising activities.


Would the collection of present game abuses and infractions argue convincingly for a change? Would we be better with a game that runs independent of big-time colleges and universities?

Would the NCAA have better control with additional layers of rules and regulations? With fewer distractions?

Should athletic scholarships be awarded based on athletic ability? Who determines athletic ability?

Should athletic scholarships be awarded based on academic merit with athletic ability thrown in?

Should athletic scholarships be awarded based on need?

Should athletic scholarships be awarded based on disadvantaged status?

Should athletics reflect the student body? Is this a static picture or should it be dynamic and cognizant of gender (or minority enrollment)?

What is the mission of our universities?

Approaches and New Problems

A number of different approaches may be tried. It is important to consider whether going back to the way it was or retreating from present principles would be practical and popular. Without wide support, change will be difficult to implement. So approaches should strive to be inclusive when possible and feasible.

An associative approach.

A dissociative approach.

Choose one of the following:
Don't compensate athletes. If playing on these teams is important to becoming a professional, compensation will be unnecessary. Problem: Athletes and coaches are different, some athletes will be interested in short-term gains, further exploitation of athletes.
Pay athletes. This is fair compensation for providing a service (entertainment) for the spectators. Besides, the coach gets paid for his or her effort. Problem: Workman's compensation for injuries on the job (something the NCAA has successfully fought against for years), tax laws, unions.
Compensate athletes based on need and disadvantaged status. Problem: Who decides?

This brief analysis doesn't solve the on-going problems in collegiate athletics, it does provide a foundation for thoughtful discussions. It does seem clear that something should be done to bring fairness and sanity back to big-time collegiate sports. In the final analysis, what is needed is a model that will satisfy the participants, the spectators, the coaches and supporters, and the system.

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