New NCAA President Can Change the World of College Sports

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Roger I. Abrams Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University; Author

In the 1950s, NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers came up with a brilliant Madison Avenue term to describe the men and women who played college sports. He called them "student-athletes." Byers thought these athletes should be "patriots," who would be free of avarice, rather than paid "mercenaries" like employees who performed services. It was a brilliant piece of branding. These college athletes were different from the professionals who earned real money exhibiting their athletic prowess. The "student-athletes" were amateurs -- students at heart who happened to spend some nights and weekends at the gym and Saturdays on the football field. They played for the fun, honor and joy of it. The fiction worked well, and college sports became more popular than ever, especially in the revenue producing sports of men's basketball and football.

The NCAA has now chosen a new leader who has a singular opportunity to change the world of college sports. The Association selected Mark Emmert, the President of the University of Washington, to replace the late Myles Brand, who passed away last September. While the NCAA missed an opportunity to make a "change" statement by selecting a woman or a person of color as the new president, Dr. Emmert can direct the organization in a positive direction. His background as a seasoned academic administrator at UW, LSU and Connecticut should stand him in good stead. Balancing the idealism espoused by the Association with hard-nosed pragmatism, Dr. Emmert has winning chances.

The NCAA came a long way under Myles Brand, instituting a more reasoned approach on the issue of academic eligibility, for example. After decades lost in the swamp of SAT/ACT cut-off scores, the NCAA added a focus on the academic progress of the athletes. Watching how athletes actually perform academically is a much preferred measure, and examining academic progress moved the question of eligibility towards "outputs" and away from "inputs." Now, the NCAA imposes penalties in terms of the loss of athletic scholarships on those member schools that have not met their targets. I would like to see a parallel system of rewards for those colleges that graduate their athletes in large numbers.

Upon taking office this fall, President Emmert should chart out a series of goals he wants to achieve during his tenure. He might consider the contours of the athletic scholarship. Are current scholarships sufficient to cover the actual cost of attending school? Are students kicked off their scholarships for non-performance on the field of play? Or because they were injured playing their sport? What about their long-term medical expenses? (This is especially significant as we learn more about the long-term disabling effects of playing football.)

The NCAA addresses reform on an issue-by-issue basis, but a comprehensive review of the business of college sports would be a better approach. The entire college sports enterprise deserves a rethinking. Can the NCAA preserve its brand and treat the athletes -- who, after all, created the largess -- with greater respect, rewarding their contributions? The only "players" who seem to have benefitted financially in recent years are the college coaches, whose free agency has resulted in enormous pay increases.

Olympic sports had to deal with the same issue. How do you maintain amateur status while financially rewarding the athletes? The strategy used was to create trust funds for Olympic athletes, amounts that could be drawn upon to meet current and future financial needs. Although this system had its problems and was eventually replaced with open professionalism, it might be a worthwhile first step for college sports. Put some of the money away for a rainy day. For those athletes who do not make it to the pros - and there are many - the banked money will allow them to start fresh in a non-sports career.

Universities will argue that they do not have the resources to squirrel away these funds. Based on how the money is now allocated - large amounts for the coaches and the ADs - they do not have the spare change. As president of a PAC-10 school, Dr. Emmert certainly understands this, but reform is possible nonetheless. The NCAA knows it cannot cut costs by committing antitrust violations, such as its ill-fated "restricted earnings coach" scheme. If the NCAA allows its member schools to establish these savings accounts for revenue-producing athletes, the free market will take over. If I were a high school athlete, I would certainly think more kindly toward a college that would reward me for my contribution to the institution.

Nothing in this proposal will affect the NCAA brand. If a basketball coach was paid $500,000 less, for example, each of his players could receive $30,000 a year in banked money. That may not be the amount the free market would pay for their services, but it is a start in the direction of equity.