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Warren K. Zola Headshot

The Untenable Dichotomy in College Athletics

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College athletics' current position balancing between commercialism and education is untenable. The endless chase for revenue by many athletic departments ensures a growing departure from their institution's primary mission -- to develop and educate its students. Darwinian principles have taken control of college athletics, further dividing institutions in the power conferences from everyone else. Just as Icarus followed his unchecked ambition and flew towards the sun, so too is college athletics chasing excess towards disaster.

The NCAA was created to balance the role of intercollegiate athletics within higher education. Unfortunately the NCAA, a non-profit organization which generates in excess of $845 million in revenue per year, has evolved into an empire crumbling under its own success. In response to attacks calling for transformative change, President Mark Emmert has embraced reform, but has done so with little consideration of the wishes of member institutions and the NCAA's own regulatory guidelines.

Penn State is a clear example of the perils of college athletics operating without adequate oversight or institutional control. Quick to respond to the Penn State debacle, Emmert meted out punishment with an appalling disregard for the NCAA's governance process. Bewildering legal experts, the NCAA executive board ignored due process and bypassed other internal regulations as Emmert exerted his authority. The NCAA, a membership organization, has no legal or moral right to act as an oligopoly, even in the name of reform.

As the business of college sports expands and the NCAA grows increasingly incapable of maintaining adequate control of the industry, the tension manifests on college campuses. Athletic departments evolve to navigate the rising commercialism and become progressively disconnected from the mission of their institutions. Campus leaders must address improprieties with greater regularity, diverting their attention from more central goals -- improving the educational experience of their students.

Events at the University of North Carolina epitomize this trend as their institutional reputation has been damaged as a result of their athletics program. Misconduct encompassing academic integrity and financial management generated public outcry costing the school their football coach, athletic director, chief fundraiser, prominent faculty, and chancellor. And now this school's leadership must deal with these complications, thereby distracting them from their broader institutional mission.

The tragic consequence of this phenomenon is that the leaders of many athletic departments often make decisions based on revenue rather than education. In order for college administrators to recalibrate an athletic department's actions to its institutional mission, three principles should be adhered to: 1) academic standards and integrity; 2) the best interests of the students; and 3) accountability. Athletic directors must ensure that their departments enhance, and do not distract from, the institution's mission. Presidents and boards of trustees need to measure the success of the athletic department on academic advising, career services, and the educational experiences of its students as much as they do wins and losses.

Make no mistake, the structure of college athletics will change -- and sooner rather than later. Whether this transformation is made freely from within, or coerced as a result of the O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit, a revolution is coming to the landscape of intercollegiate athletics. This billion dollar class action lawsuit brought on behalf of former student-athletes challenges the NCAA's policy of licensing their names, images and likenesses, without their permission or without providing them compensation. Discovery in this case has exposed tremendous difference of opinions and strain within the NCAA on the dichotomy of commercialism and amateurism. More damning is that the NCAA may be operating illegally with antitrust damages greater than $1billion a distinct possibility.

Where are we heading? Power conferences may secede from the NCAA, breaking the chains of incompetent and inconsistent oversight from this fractured organization. Students competing on revenue-generating teams may be paid and/or unions for those playing sports on college campuses may grow in strength and legal standing. Or perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way and schools will embrace the Division III model of local competition and reduced revenue streams.

As the myth of Icarus illustrates, hubris leads to failed ambition. Without regaining control of intercollegiate athletics, the ethics and values of a school will deteriorate.

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