What if universities didn't run college sports?
Scandals hurt collegiate athletics every year. Recruiting violations and illegal payments. Passing grades for courses student athletes never attended. In 2017, a Federal grand jury indicted multiple college coaches for taking kickbacks for directing players to sign with agents and apparel companies. These ugly stories mock the student-athlete ideal and distress those of us who follow college football and basketball.
Critics are wrong to believe sport scandals are new. They began in the 1850s when intercollegiate games were first played. The scandals were so bad by 1906, colleges and universities established the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to enforce standards.
Despite the NCAA’s best efforts, scandals now seem bigger and more frequent because of money. College football and basketball generate nearly a billion dollars in annual TV revenue and millions more come from licensing deals with shoe companies.
As revenues rise so do temptations to cheat, causing acute grief and embarrassment. After 150 years, maybe it’s time to admit universities and faculties are not best suited to operate big-time sport teams.
Perhaps colleges might take a cue from what’s happening at the high school level. So many elite prep athletes now play for independent club teams, some high schools struggle to field competitive teams in basketball, soccer, and softball.
This is how club teams might work for colleges. Independent, off-campus clubs formed and operated by alumni sign contracts with universities. Clubs pay licensing fees to campuses for use of team names, athletic facilities, uniform colors, and fight songs.
Licensing fees paid by clubs are used by universities to support non-revenue producing sports just as now. Clubs use remaining ticket and media revenues plus unlimited fan donations and commercial sponsorships to hire players and coaches and pay competitive wages.
Players employed by off-campus clubs apply for admission to college, if they choose. Colleges treat club players who opt to enroll as they now do all students with off-campus jobs.
It is critical the fan experience remains unchanged once football and basketball become off-campus club teams. If players are wearing familiar uniform colors and playing in traditional venues, will fans care whether they are students? If the club teams called the Southern Cal Trojans, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Alabama Crimson Tide are contending for national titles, how many fans will lose interest because the players are paid employees? Do they care now about players grade point averages?
Consider some of the advantages. Recruiting scandals end because clubs openly compete for high school stars. Recruits are free to field offers, and perhaps demand contracts covering tuition and books. High school players are free to focus on football or basketball if they are not interested in higher education. No more forcing a few unwanted college courses on “one and done” players hoping for a pro career.
Shifting to club teams will ignite even more heated athletic arms races. Alumni can openly donate to their favorite team to insure it competes for national titles. Nike and Adidas can pay sponsorship fees in return for advertising rights. Perhaps the NFL and NBA will pay clubs to develop minor league talent.
If money changing hands is no longer illegal, players receive compensation and long-term injury insurance. Fans enjoy semi-professional levels of play. University educators breathe a sigh of relief they no longer have to balance academic excellence and integrity against unfettered pursuit of athletic championships.
Change won’t come easy. Richer teams will resist sharing with less fortunate ones. But there is enough money in the system now for the haves to share with the have-nots. This will help maintain competitive balance, and support non-revenue producing sports just as is true now. The amount of money to share is not a problem. Fairness and competence in negotiations will be. Revenue-sharing is a concept the pro leagues successfully adopted. Off-campus club teams can follow suit.
There will be many problems to manage and details to work out. Clubs will need a governing organization to negotiate player age limits, working conditions, competition rules, and employment of game officials. Perhaps clubs will contract with the NCAA for management services. NCAA becomes National Club Athletic Association. There will still be scandals, but to the relief of university administrations they’ll be headaches for off-campus club officials and law enforcement.
Moving football and basketball teams off-campus is a radical but perhaps necessary change. Despite good works, the NCAA’s past reforms failed to stop scandals that sometimes compromise college academics. Sport historian Ronald A. Smith argues there is an understandable reason why: part of our national DNA is a drive to win — to be the best. This competitive drive leads to the bending and breaking of rules, not just in college sports.
The NCAA is losing ground as billions of dollars for college football and basketball continue to undermine the student-athlete ideal. Worsening scandals and pressures to pay players are upsetting a century’s worth of assumptions about intercollegiate sports. Sometimes disruption leads to innovation. Moving to club teams might blunt the corrupting influence of money on college sports and academics.