Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's Wrong with 'College Sports'?

When you consider the overall landscape of "college sports," that phrase conjures up mostly an image of big-time, big-money Division I football and basketball.

They produce the most revenue, the most media coverage and the most fans, by far and away over any other element of "college sports." When you consider, however, the thousands of college students who compete in Division III, Division II and what are considered the "lesser" sports in Division I, the number of college students in D! football and basketball is only a handful.

Of course this missperception about college sports is unfair. It is unfair to student athletes, coaches, administrators and family and friends. And it is almost exclusively caused by money and media.

One model to consider in trying to imagine the real form of college athletics is a kind of college sports food pyramid.

The base would include Division III sports, where no scholarships are offered, student athletes are generally treated the same as the overall school population, and little if no revenue is generated. There will be media attention in smaller cities and towns where professional teams and Division I programs don't dominate the community consciousness.

Division II programs would comprise the next level. Scholarships are offered, though on a smaller scale than in Division I; and maximum participation for as many students is encouraged. As with Division I, media attention and fan enthusiasm varies widely based on the overall sports environment in the community.

The top of the pyramid includes layers of Division I athletics. In general, the student athletes are the most accomplished in their sport of any student athletes in the country. The highest level of competition is very competitive indeed. But there are lower level programs and athletes who are not nearly as skilled as those in the top echelon and who would be better suited to compete in Division II or III.

At the pinnacle are  Division I football and basketball.

So what's wrong with college sports? It's a question that university presidents and professors and boards of trustees have been trying to answer for at least 100 years.

Dick Rasmussen, who has been the executive director of the University Athletic Association since its creation in June 1986, wrote his doctoral dissertation about the formation of the conference, and it includes a history of intercollegiate athletics in the United States. It also includes a history of the many attempts by university administrations and educational foundations to evaluate the role and practice of intercollegiate sports and to recommend adjustments to sports programs.

What's interesting is how long colleges and foundations and the NCAA have been asking the same question. Here are some highlights drawn from Dick Rasmussen's thesis (pdf), "The Role of  Intercollegiate Athletics in the Academy — A Case Study of the Formation of the University Athletic Association," and some more recent examples.

• 1882: Harvard creates a Committee on the Regulation of Athletic Sports.

• 1905: Under threat from President Theodore Roosevelt, 62 schools form the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States to establish policies and procedures. The organization becomes the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910.

• 1929: The Carnegie Foundation publishes a "The Growth of College Athletics" by Howard J. Savage.

• 1950s: The American Council of Education forms a committee of college and university chief executives to make recommendations about college athletics.

• 1979: The Educational Record publishes results of an American Council of Education inquiry into the conduct of college athletics. The report urged more involvement by boards, presidents and athletic directors.

• 1991: The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics releases a report entitled"Keeping Faith With the Student-Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics."

• 2004: The boards of Directors of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities  (AGB) published guidelines for the oversight of college athletics.

• 2010: The Knight commission releases another report, entitled "Restoring the Balance," that recommends more openness in college athletics financing and modifying how revenue is distributed. And it urged that athletes be treated as students, not professionals. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the report was prompted in part by statistics showing that from 2005 to 2008, median spending on athletics at most of the public institutions in Division I-A jumped 38 percent, to $84,446 per athlete. Academic spending per student during that same period, in the meantime, grew by 21 percent, to $13,349.

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