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Warren K. Zola Headshot

Time to Embrace Change in College Athletics

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Every April, colleges around the country begin preparing for graduation ceremonies, ensuring their campuses look pristine for the annual influx of parents celebrating their son or daughter's accomplishments. Yet no amount of spring cleaning can erase the memory of an embarrassing year within college athletics. The undeniable reality of schools prioritizing revenue over institutional mission, coupled with the unparalleled ineptitude of the NCAA, has made this year the least student-centric in the history of college athletics.

Media rights deals, coaches' salaries, and the new construction of athletic facilities widen the gap between Division I schools. The result is that schools engage in conference realignment as if playing musical chairs at a six-year old's birthday party. Conference members' shared institutional mission or geographic proximity are traded for television market sizes without hesitation, yet the NCAA keeps perpetuating the myth of amateurism within college athletics.

The NCAA and President Mark Emmert seem incapable of reorienting college athletics within higher education as a positive component of the campus experience, instead embarking on a Darwinian chase for revenue. Student welfare and development is no longer the priority but an afterthought. The absurdity of this environment has been noted by national critics -- academic and popular alike. Note to the NCAA: if The Daily Show and The Colbert Report take unbridled shots at you, be assured your ineptitude is no longer a secret.

After a litany of lawsuits challenging the role and rules of the NCAA, most recently the potentially revolutionary O'Bannon case, a sense of inevitability has finally pierced the protective veil shielding college athletics from reform these last several decades. One thing is clear: change is coming to college athletics. The only uncertainty is when and how. It is imperative that leaders within higher education recognize this inevitability and take an active role in reshaping the existing college athletics system. If we don't embrace our roles in recalibrating the competing forces of commercialism and education in college sports, the courts or legislature will do so for us.

At some point in the not too distant future, the structure of college athletics as we know it will change. There are a multitude of possibilities of what this future world may look like -- and it may be far stranger than either George Orwell or Aldous Huxley could predict. Open markets and competitive bidding wars for high school players, salary caps for conferences, revenue sharing, agent representation and sponsorship deals for college athletes, and maybe even a student athlete union all within the realm of possibility.

To be sure, some outcomes are less likely, but the critical question is whether college leaders want to gamble on some of these scenarios. Rather than passively waiting for the courts or government to impose their restraints on college athletics, now is the time for leaders within higher education to address this matter and weigh in on the future of the industry.