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How should colleges address conflicts between academics, athletics and money?

April 8, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
Players and fans celebrated the March Madness victory by the University of Connecticut, but the game against the University of Kentucky also highlighted one of the major debates facing NCAA basketball. Jeffrey Brown gets perspectives from Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, and Kevin Blackistone of the University of Maryland about student players and the amateurship model.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More than 21 million viewers tuned into last night’s NCAA men’s championship basketball game, a heady moment for the University of Connecticut fans, but also coming at a point when schools are facing new pressures about how they balance competing interests among athletics, academics and money.

Jeff is back with that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: March Madness spilling over into April, a time when millions enjoy the thrills of college sports.

Last night, confetti filled the air of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after the University of Connecticut beat Kentucky for the men’s basketball championship. Tonight, the UConn women have their turn at a title tonight against Notre Dame, in a first-ever battle of unbeatens.

But amid the on-court excitement, a national debate grows over big-time college sports and the status and role of what are called student athletes. One potentially ground-shifting decision came last month, when a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players have the right to unionize.

The team’s former quarterback Kain Colter led the push. He told the Aspen Institute last week that most college athletes, who don’t go pro, need protection.

KAIN COLTER, Former Quarterback, Northwestern University: Right now, I don’t believe that the NCAA and the structure that we’re in is setting these young men and women up for success and allowing them to reach their potential.

JEFFREY BROWN: The NCAA, which governs college athletics, strongly disagrees. On Sunday, its president, Mark Emmert, called the concept of a players union — quote — “grossly inappropriate.”

MARK EMMERT, President, NCAA: To convert to a unionized employee model is essentially to throw away the entire collegiate model for athletics. There’s — you can’t — you can’t split that one in two. You’re either a student at a university playing your sports or you’re an employee of that university.

JEFFREY BROWN: The NCAA also faces a class-action lawsuit started by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. He’s asking a federal court to strike down the prohibition on student athletes gaining financially when their names and likenesses are used commercially.

And Kentucky’s recent basketball success has further underscored the question of whether players are in fact students or athletes. The Wildcats started five freshmen, and have become known for one-and-done players, who play one year and then turn professional.

Kentucky coach John Calipari says it’s up to them.

JOHN CALIPARI, Head Coach, University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball: They sacrifice. They surrender to each other. Now for our team, and for our program, and our school, season’s over. Now it’s about them. I kind of stay out of the decision-making.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the coming weeks, several of Kentucky’s freshmen stars are expected to announce they will join the NBA draft.

We get a pair of perspectives now on some of these bigger issues that are being debated. Patrick Harker is president of the University of Delaware and a member of the Board of Directors of the NCAA Division I. And Kevin Blackistone is a panelist for ESPN and teaches sports journalism at the University of Maryland.

And welcome to both of you.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, University of Maryland: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Blackistone, let me start with you.

Put aside for a moment specific cases or solutions. What’s the overall problem you see in college sports?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Inequity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inequity.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It’s inequity in money. It’s inequity in power. It’s inequity in resources. The resources are what this unionization of Northwestern football players is all about. It’s really not about compensation, but it’s about things like health care, workers compensation, protection for scholarships should they be injured and no longer able to play.

Most people in this country don’t realize that scholarships are one-year renewable contracts with the university, stamped by the athletic department. So, if a player is hurt, and he or she can no longer play, they can lose their scholarship. So it’s really basic things like that, and it’s really not very much about compensation in terms of hard dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Pat Harker, first, as a general — generally first, is the word crisis, do you accept that? What is the situation for college sports today?

PATRICK HARKER, President, University of Delaware: Yes, if there’s a crisis, I think it’s a crisis in losing sight of the fact that the most important part of the phrase student athlete is student.

I say that not just as a university president, but I say it as a former student athlete. I’m here today because athletics opened doors for me. And I’m really worried that, starting with middle school all the way through college, we have lost sight of the fact that students need an education to be successful, even if they have a pro career.

They’re not going to do that forever. And after their career is over, they need another career. They need to be successful in something else, and they need an education.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — staying with you, Pat Harker, do — do you — is the very term student athlete a useful one; is it one we should use or one we should discard?

PATRICK HARKER: Yes, because if you think about the University of Delaware and most members of NCAA Division I, we use money on athletics, substantial sums of money.

But you have to think of it as a subsidy. We’re subsidizing an opportunity for students, just like we do in the theater program, just like we do in the music program, in this case through athletics, to learn things they can’t learn in the classroom and to provide for our community that sense of competition, and camaraderie and pride.

But if you lose sight of that fact, then I think there is a problem. I mean, we do this — we lose money on lots of things. We lose money on every student that comes to the university if they’re subsidized. But we do it because there’s a greater purpose. We want to give them a great educational experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Blackistone, what do you think about the term student athlete? Is it a misnomer? Is it useful? Should it be discarded?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It absolutely should be discarded, and it is a cover.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cover?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It’s a cover.

It was invented by Walter Byers. He admitted it in his confessional after running the NCAA for some 30-plus years. He invented it back in the ’60s to provide the NCAA cover from having exactly what is happening today happen then. And that was to have student athletes looked at as employees.

The member institutions and NCAA had faced a number of very serious lawsuits from players who had been critically injured on the field. And they wanted their member institutions to take care of them, as if they were what they are, and that is employees of the university.

And Walter Byers explains in his confession — and it came out in the mid-’90s — called “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” how he came up with this term and what he meant by it. So the phrase student athlete, which we in the media have regurgitated, has given cover to the NCAA and its member institutions, not only in the court of public opinion, but also in legal court too, when people have tried to challenge this notion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, President Harker, you — when — in saying that you think the student part of that is still the key, you — you — you argue against, for example, the idea of unions for athletes, for college athletes. Explain why you think that would be a bad idea.

PATRICK HARKER: Well, look, we lose money on every sport we offer at the University of Delaware, and every school at our level.

And so if we’re required to spend more money, and we’re required to take our eye off the ball, giving these students a real education, then everybody loses, and we don’t want to do that. And, again, personally, as a former student athlete, where doors opened for me because of that experience, I want to make sure this next generation has the same opportunities.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about paying them, paying them, compensating them in any form? Is that possible?

PATRICK HARKER: Well, we pay them through their scholarship today, but only half of our students are on scholarship.

Many, again — we often think about men’s basketball and football, but there are many student athletes on campus who get to take advantage of this opportunity, some with scholarships, some without. But they’re doing it for the love of sport and what they learn through that sport.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Blackistone, he’s making a point, an important point we often hear and sometimes forget. We focus on these big-time programs…

JEFFREY BROWN: … and these big-time sports…

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and forget about everything else.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, right now, there’s an erosion going on within college athletics, and has been for some time.

And so the University of Delaware — Delaware is one of the schools that is suffering the erosion. And sooner or later, there is going to be, if there isn’t already, a core of 50, maybe 60 schools, at least half of which do make profit of off their — their athletics who are going to be controlling the sport.

And so I think, sooner or later, as we have seen through the formation of the BCS over the years, which — and a new football contract playoff, which they were still so opposed to just a few years ago, have decided to go forward and do it for $5.6 billion from ESPN. I think you are going to see those schools start to circle around the pile of money that they are able to generate and keep that for themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what harm do you see in that system?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, if that system continues, I think the harm is going to be to the schools that cannot participate in it.

And we know that there has been an arms race, an athletics race over the years. Every year, there’s another school, another very small school which plunks down a few million dollars to start up a football program. Why? Just because it brings marketing and public relations to your university, and also from the idea that maybe somehow you can make a buck off of this.

And I think that that’s the problem here. And so a union, once again, is really what — what these kids are talking about really is not the compensation, but resources and power and a seat at the table with the NCAA so they can bargain for their own rights.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Pat Harker, just in our last minute, you can respond to that, but what kind of things — what would you like to see happen?

PATRICK HARKER: Well, first, remember, the conferences we’re talking about, Kevin is talking about are the exception, not the rule.

We, universities like the University of Delaware, are the majority of Division I. And so what I worry about is, in this conversation, we’re letting five conferences, potentially through the media, drive the debate.

For colleges at our level, I would like to see, as I said earlier, a renewed focus on the student athlete. And that means not only their success on the field, but their success in the classroom, to make sure that they can get the major of choice.

And sometimes we have set this up where it’s a little difficult to do. We have geographically dispersed conferences, where they’re on planes or trains a lot. I think we need to start to create some consolidation at our level, geographic consolidation, so students aren’t away from campus so much, so they can get that degree that involves a lab, that involves a research project.

That’s what I did when I was a student athlete, and that led me to the career I have today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, Kevin Blackistone, thank you both very much.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

PATRICK HARKER: Thank you.

Note: Due to footage restrictions, this video has been edited.