ON TACKLING (THE MORALITY PROBLEM) AND HOLDING THAT (ECONOMIC) LINE
The College Football Association, that NCAA splinter group which covets increased television revenue for the 61 major football schools in its ranks, last week conditionally approved a $180 million contract that would allow NBC to televise the football games of member schools for four years, starting in 1982. The action came in defiance of the NCAA, which has long negotiated network football TV contracts for its members and had earlier signed a four-year, $263.5 million deal with CBS and ABC. The CFA vote—33-20, with five abstentions and three voided ballots—escalates a power struggle that could result in the NCAA's disciplining or even expelling the wayward CFA schools, which would like to have their separate TV deal and NCAA membership, too. The CFA has given its schools until Sept. 10 to say for sure whether they will come under the NCAA or the CFA TV package. The threat of excommunication by the NCAA may persuade some of those schools to defy the NCAA no further, but it's just as possible many CFA schools will carry out their mutiny come what may. Or, alternatively, that the NCAA may seek to keep itself intact by appeasing the CFA.
Either of those last two developments would be a victory for the philosophy of big-time college sports, which holds that a big football game with all the trimmings benefits colleges by generating esprit among students and putting alumni and other benefactors in a giving mood. But the cost of all this is considerable. Owing partly to inflation, but more to the need to keep up with the Joneses, athletic department budgets are increasingly strained by the costs of travel, equipment and, above all, athletic scholarships. Most big-time athletic departments attempt, officially at least, to pay their own way by means of revenue from gate admissions, TV and outside contributions, an approach that necessarily puts a lot of emphasis on winning.
But not everybody can win—either on the field or at the box office. The University of Michigan's promotion-minded athletic director, Don Canham, estimates that his is one of no more than 20 to 25 schools whose sports programs pay their own way. Most athletic departments are scrambling to keep financially afloat, an effort that leads to reliance on overly influential boosters, shameless hucksterism and a great variety of transgressions: illegal recruiting practices, relaxed entrance requirements, doctored transcripts, the failure of too many athletes to graduate (even though their education may be free) and the revocation of scholarships the instant athletes stop producing on the field.
Besides being only too willing to sacrifice their athletes and their own supposedly high-minded values, some of the big sports schools appear prepared to sacrifice one another. The most telling argument against the CFA is that its approach would worsen the rich-get-richer situation that already exists in college sport. This has caused great injury to less successful schools, which consequently have had to resort to Stockmanesque budget cuts. These include not only commendable economies in travel and equipment costs, but also the less welcome dropping of sports, most but not all of them minor. Last April, financially strapped Villanova discontinued its football program, a move that caused stunned athletic department officials to inveigh against the increasingly elitist cast of big-budget college sports. Noting that Villanova had been given no more than an occasional nibble of the NCAA's television pie, which is devoured by the biggest football powers, Athletic Director Ted Aceto lamented, "The big schools are trying to make money and don't care if everybody else is second-class." Villanova football Coach Dick Bedesem said, "Sure we were losing money. But chemistry and history lose money, too."
Bedesem's complaint hits at the very heart of big-time college sports. Assuming that intercollegiate athletics has a legitimate educational purpose, this question can be fairly asked: Why shouldn't it be supported by the college's general funds just as the history department is? Of course, this would require reining in bloated athletic programs. Instead of quitting football, Villanova, a Division I-A school, might have dropped to Division I-AA (whose members hold down costs by awarding fewer athletic scholarships), Division II (fewer still) or even Division III (whose schools give scholarships only on the basis of need, an approach also followed in Division-I-A by the heretical members of the Ivy League). Until now, scholarship-limiting schools have coexisted within the NCAA with the big athletic powers. Members of the Pac-10 arid Big Ten, at least, apparently feel this coexistence can continue more or less as is. At any rate, those two conferences have so far refused to join the CFA.
The CFA is wedded to the idea that college sports should be, as much as possible, self-supporting. CFA executive director Chuck Neinas grandly refers to what he calls the "generated revenue theory," adding pointedly, "Those who operate on this theory have to come up with ways to generate the revenue." Thus, while the NCAA's new TV contract would selectively spread $263.5 million among the 137 Division I-A schools and some lower-division schools, the CFA's deal would return $180 million to only 61 schools—minus an 8% cut the CFA says it's prepared to give the NCAA. In addition to increased per-school revenues, CFA members want greater control of their own destiny in other ways; they complain that in the existing NCAA structure, the Portland States of the world have too much say in matters that really affect only the Penn States. As for the abuses associated with big-time sports, the CFA-ers insist that they actually want to implement stronger safeguards against cheating than those adopted by the NCAA.
But can the CFA schools possibly have it both ways? As far back as 1951, New York District Attorney Frank Hogan concluded that the commercialism in college sports—and this, remember, was before buckets of TV loot were pouring down on the colleges—had contributed to a "moral climate" that helped precipitate the point-shaving scandals then rocking college basketball. Most of the players accused of shaving points, Hogan said, "should never have been accepted as college students. With only a few exceptions, their high school grades were below average.... [The colleges] shamelessly bargained for their services. Inducements were offered. To describe such bidding as scholarship aid is only to add to the hypocrisy practiced.... This was the introduction of these defendants to higher education.... Is it strange that they found the idealism and the search for truth in the classroom inconsistent with their commercial arrangements?" Hogan's words might apply just as well both to college sport's recent academic transcript scandals and to the current allegations of point shaving during the 1978-79 season by basketball players at Boston College.
Calls to abolish athletic scholarships in favor of aid on a need-only basis continue to be heard. Opponents, however, argue that such a move would lead to under-the-table payments. Although it is hard to imagine that cheating could be any worse than it already is, the abandonment of athletic scholarships—or, more properly, grants-in-aid—is unlikely. Most major college presidents seem to regard high-powered varsity sport as an acceptable adjunct to higher education whose benefits are worth both the economic costs and even the attendant excesses. One hopes those presidents might hear out Dr. William Marshall, the athletic director of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., which, as a Division III school, awards no athletic scholarships and scrapes by on a modest athletic budget that depends on general school funds. Largely because of low overhead, Franklin and Marshall is able to offer 22 men's and women's varsity sports, with, astonishingly, 498 of the school's 2,000 students, or 24.9%, taking part. This compares to, say, the University of Southern California, where 620 of 17,199 students, or 3.6%, play 20 varsity sports.
"Like other institutions at this level, we look at intercollegiate athletics as part of the educational enterprise," Dr. Marshall told SI's Brooks Clark. "We're funded as a department of the college, and whether we win, lose or draw, we know what our budget for the year is going to be. We hire a football coach not because he's going to fill a stadium, but because we think he'll teach young people. We don't have great sums of money tied up in athletic grants-in-aid, and we don't have a handle on a young man or a young woman that says, 'We've given you a scholarship, now we expect you to perform.' When I hear about schools dropping sports, it makes me sad, because once a program is dropped—whether it's an academic or athletic program—you limit opportunities for young people. I can't understand schools that say, 'We can't afford to have wrestling or gymnastics,' or that cut out cross-country or golf. If a school is spending millions on grants-in-aid for sports, how can it not afford to have a sport that has almost no overhead?"