Huffpost College
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Warren K. Zola Headshot

Time for Transformative Change in Intercollegiate Athletics

Posted: Updated:
BOBBY RUSH NCAA MAFIA
Getty File Photo

Intercollegiate athletics, in its entirety, is neither broken nor unmindful of the total well-being of student-athletes. Student-athletes, competing at over 1,200 institutions around the country, are typically significant contributors to the vibrancy of their institutions. For the vast majority of these college athletes, intercollegiate sports serve its intended educational purpose: imparting transferable skills such as leadership, teamwork, dedication in the face of adversity, and the pursuit of a common goal. These traits serve all students well as they pursue their careers and dreams after they leave campus.

However, in pursuit of their strategic mission, the needs of higher education institutions have diverged from the interests of their student-athletes. Reform in college athletics is needed to ensure that higher education re-balances the role of intercollegiate sports and offers better alignment of the well-being of student-athletes with the institution's mission. Failure to do so will lead to a future where athletics no longer serves to develop and educate student-athletes -- the primary purpose of higher education.

While there is room for improvement across the entirety of intercollegiate athletics, the most egregious issues predominantly appear within the sports of football and men's basketball. Additionally, the reality is that these sports are comprised of large numbers of African-American students who then disproportionately must bear the burden of these problems. When student-athletes experience or sense an "economic disequilibrium" between their contribution to the institution and the financial and educational benefits they receive, it results not only in their own disillusionment, but also the reality that a school's athletic department harms their institutions educational objective and brand.

Unquestionably, revenue from television contracts generated by football and basketball has radically altered the impact of intercollegiate sports on the fiscal management of universities and colleges. One consequence is that a principal driver behind many football and men's basketball programs is one of revenue generation -- illustrated by recent conference realignment activity -- rather than the intercollegiate athletic experience for student-athletes. As a result, institutions are under increasing pressure to compromise the interests of student-athletes, often distorting their role within college athletics.

Ultimately, we, as leaders in higher educational institutions, must find sustainable solutions that realign this imbalance, and in the process improve the quality of the student experience for the benefit of all. It is higher education, led by the university presidents, and aided in part by the NCAA, that must recalibrate the balance between athletics and a school's mission. My experience with, and research on, intercollegiate sports programs has led me to several specific proposals that improve the outcomes for both schools and their students; and they may be grouped into three categories: 1) academic standards and integrity; 2) protecting the interests and improving the experiences of student-athletes; and 3) reestablishing the principle of accountability for all constituents involved in intercollegiate athletics.

These recommendations are as follows:

A. Academic Standards & Integrity

Academic standards must be a priority. Failure to do so undermines the mission of higher education and harms the student experience. In order to ensure this goal:

1. Student-athletes must participate in the same curriculum as the rest of their school's student body. It is a long-standing principal that separate is not equal. We must strive to ensure that a college degree and education has meaning for all students at a university without disparity between the student-athletes and everyone else.

2. Student-athletes must obtain their degrees at the same rates as others at their chosen institution. Graduation rates serve as one barometer for the success of a school's educational value. Institutions must maintain minimum student graduation rates for their student-athletes. Furthermore, these statistics must be examined to explore any racial gaps between white and minority students -- a common problem on many campuses.

Appropriate graduation rates must be met to participate in post-season competition. A team or athletic department's graduation rates, and the number of times those rates fall below acceptable standards, should lead to a sliding scale of punishments -- including loss of television appearances, playoff and bowl participation -- imposed on either a sport or school basis.

B. Interests and Experiences of Student-athletes

The student-athlete experience must be improved and enhanced to properly reflect the role they play within higher education -- as they enter school, during their time on campus, and as they pursue their careers. Accordingly:

3. A full athletic scholarship should cover the full cost of attendance -- which should be defined by the institution's financial aid office for all students. There will be financial consequences, and it may force some schools to reduce some scholarship offers from full to partial in nature. However, the gap for many student-athletes, especially those coming from families with real financial need, is tangible and unacceptable.

4. Revise National Letters of Intent (NLIs). NLIs are binding agreements between a prospective student-athlete and a college institution that govern the relationship and bind a student-athlete to a particular school. In many ways, NLIs misrepresent reality as they are drafted entirely to protect institutions, while providing no bargaining power to student-athletes. Some form of binding agreement for both parties make sense, however, NLIs should be modified to better reflect the interests of both parties.

5. Change scholarship offers from one year renewables to four-year scholarships. This will provide student-athletes with a greater sense of stability while empowering them with the freedom to speak out for change without fear of the consequences. An impartial body -- either the conference or faculty (non-athletic department) committee on a school -- should be vested with the ability to rescind scholarships "for cause."

6. Grant student-athletes the legal right to their image and likeness, for the time period during their college years, after they leave school. A school should be allowed sell apparel representing a student-athlete while he/she is a student and keep the proceeds. However, once that student-athlete graduates, he/she has a right to all future earnings from any profits the school earns using their image.

7. There must be a far greater investment by institutions and conferences in advising student-athletes that have an opportunity to pursue a career in professional athletics. There are 400,000 student-athletes across the country, and as the NCAA accurately promotes, most will go pro in something other than sports. However, we also must provide services to those who do have the opportunity and support their career aspirations with the same vigor we do for the rest of the student body. Doing so not only serves the student-athletes but the mission of the university as a whole by strengthening the bond between student and institution.

Revise NCAA rules to permit advisors in all sports -- not just men's ice hockey and baseball -- so that potential professional athletes may obtain unbiased counsel in making decisions about their future. The establishment of Professional Sports Counseling Panels, as allowed under NCAA rules, at either the institutional or conference level should be mandated.

Finally, any student-athlete that qualifies under the existing NCAA Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance program must be provided with comprehensive medical and disability insurance, paid for by their school. This program, as it currently stands, affords student-athletes with pro potential the right to secure permanent, but not partial, disability insurance coverage, at their cost.

C. Accountability

A vital role within higher education is one of student development of the whole person. Unfortunately, the concept of accountability for that process has become illusory within the realm of college athletics and must be a defining characteristic in all efforts of reform.

8. There must be true accountability at all levels within intercollegiate sports -- for college presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, and student-athletes. The actions of subordinates must trigger consequences for superiors, like the legal concept of respondent superior. So long as the superior knew, or should have known, there must be punishments that reduce the likelihood of future violations.

9. Financial punishments with real consequences should be meted out to institutions that violate "major" rules governing college athletics. What qualifies as a "major" infraction should be redefined to include only "egregious, blatant, and continued" actions. If found guilty, schools should be forced to suffer loss of revenue on a sliding scale. Ultimately, schools should lose their portion of conference television deals in the case of multiple offenses.

When considering reform in college athletics, we have had over a century of experience since the NCAA was formed in 1906. Changes over the past several decades have afforded the industry time for reflection. Now, in 2011, is the time for reasoned and meaningful action.

Around the Web

COLLEGE ATHLETES' RIGHTS: National Letter of Intent ties student ...

The NCAA And The So-Called Student-Athlete : NPR

ESPN.com: Page 2 : Should college athletes be paid?

NCAA weighing $2000 payments to student athletes - ESPN

Paying College Athletes: Pay for Play is the Only Way

Rebutting Taylor Branch belief in paying student-athletes - Seth ...