A lengthy article in the Times today solicits the views of Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame, regarding the future of big-time college sports. 

Those of you who avoid the sports pages (full disclosure: I watch an unhealthy amount of college basketball) are nevertheless probably aware that the business of college sports, the power of the NCAA, and the status of student-athletes have all sparked vehement debate in recent years. Current legal actions include an effort by college football players for the right to unionize (rejected in August by the NLRB) and to be compensated for branding usages (the O’Bannon case, in which a federal judge ruled in 2014 that players should be paid when their names or images are used commercially). Many commentators have advocated for such compensation, including historian Taylor Branch, whose  2011 essay in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” argues forcefully for paying college athletes as a matter of justice, and calls for “the smokescreen of amateurism” to be “swept away.”

Father Jenkins disagrees, remaining “adamantly opposed” to paying athletes, the Times reports. “Our relationship to these young people is to educate them, to help them grow,” he says. “Not to be their agent for financial gain.” Fr. Jenkins, the Times sums up, insists that “Notre Dame is an educational institution, and athletics, while diverting and instructive in its own right, is meant to serve the educational purpose.”

By way of assessing these statements, it’s worth noting that Notre Dame regularly holds pride of place atop the N.C.A.A.’s rankings of student-athlete graduation rates, with over 90 percent of its student-athletes graduating. But many other institutions fare far less well.  The ACC, in which Notre Dame plays basketball, graduated just 53% of its basketball players last year, while the SEC, arguably the premier national football conference, graduated 52% of its football players – and 42% of its basketball players. Meanwhile, the prospects for college athletes to make a career in pro sports are very dim – the NCAA lists the chances of a college basketball or football player making the pros as less than 2%. 

Meanwhile, the money just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The ten most lucrative long-term TV sports contracts with the so-called “power conferences” of the NCAA total over $16 billion; ESPN is paying $7 billion to cover the new football playoff format for the next dozen years; and the yearly salary of Alabama football coach Nick Saban is a cool $7 million. We know that the vast majority of players who generate these sums have no future in professional sports; and that many of the universities who profit from those players in no way make their education a priority -- and in many cases make a mockery of it. 

Much else is unclear. For instance, in what ways do a sports program’s success contribute to the overall thriving of a university? Do the numbers that athletic directors like to boast about really add up? Are profits dispersed generally or are they just funneled back into sports via coaches’ salaries, amped-up facilities, and so on, in a closed loop of sports opulence? What about the celebrated admissions bounce that universities are said to get from increased name recognition? In my home state, the University of Connecticut has become a much more selective institution – with higher quality students and faculty – in the two decades of its basketball dominance. Is this coincidence? If not, is it worth it? Do big-time college sports boost the overall educational mission of a university? Distract from it? Diminish it?

There’s anecdotal evidence that the prominence of competitive team sports and the displacement of academics by athletics has trickled down to much smaller institutions. When I went to Amherst College in the late 70s and early 80s, varsity sports were a kind of glorified intramural activity. No more. Now even small liberal arts colleges compete avidly for national titles... and a friend who teaches at Amherst tells me that in the past fifteen years or so he has often found himself asking, “why are there three 275-lb guys dozing in my classroom?”

For its part, Notre Dame a year ago inked a sponsorship deal whereby Under Armour will pay the university at least $90 million for the privilege of providing uniforms, footwear and other apparel to its athletes. Meanwhile, the university’s stadium is set to undergo a $400 million renovation and enlargement. Such numbers notwithstanding, Fr. Jenkins says that if necessary to preserve “the essential educational character of college athletics,” the University would forego it all and return to a club sports model – and that he would do so with no concern about impacting revenues. (The journalist interviewing him responds, simply, “Hmmm.”)

How do you view the young men and women who play big-time college sports? As student-athletes fortunate to get a free education in fair exchange for playing the game they love? Or as exploited and uncompensated entertainers, who deserve to share in the millions they generate? Asked to comment on the O’Bannon case, which is currently under appeal, Fr. Jenkins warned that the ruling risks turning a student into “an employee,” a move that in his view “does some violence to that educational relationship” between a university and its students.

Many believe that that violence happened a long time ago.





Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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