The Prospects for Athletics Reform

In recent days, we’ve heard a lot of talk about reforming college athletics. By and large, there are three competing approaches. The first involves tweaking, or modestly attempting to improve upon, the existing status quo. The second is tougher: it urges a hard-line return to amateurism. The third and most extreme calls for the enterprise of college athletics to be operated like a professional league, where athletes can earn salaries, advertising contracts, etc.

Recently, a panel of higher education and intercollegiate athletics experts—convened at the behest of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee—promoted aspects of the first two reform approaches. The panel’s report, like so many others, is chock-full of platitudes. An ESPN blogger calls a lot of it “semi-silly academic noodling.” And much of it is likely to suffer the fate of past reform efforts—gathering dust on a shelf. Indeed, even minor proposals will face an uphill battle and, in the unlikely event that a proposed rule change is adopted, universities and athletics programs will find ways to avoid it.

The impetus for the creation of the five-member panel, chaired by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, was an assortment of athletic scandals and reports of widespread academic impropriety that tarnished UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation. The panel—assembled last spring—was charged with making recommendations regarding the proper relationship between athletics and university life.

The “Rawlings Panel Report on Intercollegiate Athletics” was released on September 3. It claims to offer “principles of good governance and management of intercollegiate athletics both at UNC-CH and at universities across the country.” The report contains 28 suggestions. Some are aimed at reemphasizing academics, others at delineating administrative roles to increase accountability, and still others at scaling back the creeping professionalism of big-time college sports.

One of the panel’s proposals calls for a “year of readiness” for freshman student-athletes with mediocre academic backgrounds. These struggling students—admitted under the “special admissions” category—would devote the majority of their time to academic work and would not be able to participate in varsity competition during their first year (although they would still have four remaining years of eligibility). Currently, freshman athletes are expected to adjust to college both academically and athletically regardless of their academic preparation or qualification.

The panel also promotes what it calls a “qualitative” approach to admissions. Athletes’ “attitudinal characteristics” would be analyzed along with more traditional academic indicators. In other words, admissions officers should consider whether an individual really wants to be in college and has a desire to learn, or whether he or she will view college as a nuisance.

Other ideas include placing spending caps on team operating expenses in order to bring “greater alignment between athletic and academic expenditures,” as well as publicizing all athletics department budgets. The panel also suggests providing a coach’s education program that focuses on ethics, athletes’ safety, and the university’s academic offerings and core mission. Several parts of the report are aimed at streamlining various managerial/administrative job duties to ensure accountability and to remove opportunities for corruption and malfeasance.

Some observers have been skeptical, if not cynical, about the likelihood that the report will produce real changes. At this semester’s first UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council meeting, Vincas Steponaitis, an anthropology professor, quipped about the Rawlings Report, “I was struck with a feeling of déjà vu—I would like to find out more about ‘where are we on the recommendations of the 1989 report?’”

Steponaitis was referring to a previous report produced by a specially appointed committee at UNC-Chapel Hill that set out to discover the degree to which athletics were at odds with the university’s “proper standards of conduct” and maintenance of academic integrity. With 32 recommendations covering everything from weekly practice schedules to the relationship between faculty and athletes, the report was a well-intentioned, but ultimately futile, attempt to re-shape the athletic dynamics at UNC-Chapel Hill and spur national reform. Most of the proposals were never adopted.

As the Rawlings Panel report points out, while a “few of the [1989 committee’s] recommendations for national reform have been partially implemented over the ensuing 23 years, most have not been adopted at all, and in some cases universities and the NCAA have moved in the opposite direction.”

One Rawlings Panel recommendation calls for UNC-Chapel Hill, in concert with other institutions at the conference/national level, to shorten the time allotted for practice and athletic training. However, the NCAA adopted a similar rule in 1991, to no avail. Per the 1991 rule change, athletes were supposed to devote no more than 20 hours per week to sports activities. But athletic departments developed workarounds with “voluntary” practices and other unofficial activities. In 2010, a survey of Division 1 football and basketball athletes revealed that most spent roughly 40 hours per week practicing and training.

In spite of the shortcomings of past reform efforts, the rise of the college sports-industrial complex has reinvigorated a nationwide debate over such issues as student-athlete compensation, academic fraud and the suitability of various institutional reform measures. The Rawlings Panel report is a byproduct of this atmosphere of reform-mindedness.

Nevertheless, some commentators think proposals like those presented by the Rawlings Panel strike at the branches, not the root, of the fundamental problems associated with college athletics. In a 2011 op-ed for the Washington Times, the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin pointed out that the enormous benefits accompanying college football are almost insurmountable obstacles to reform (his analysis could apply to other sports, too):

Reform attempts fail because they ignore the extreme level of fan and alumni support that college football enjoys, the hoped-for rewards from television and bowl games—which include not just money, but publicity—and the fact that playing college football is the only path for talented high school players to get to the pros. As long as these three factors remain, corruption is inevitable.

This kind of apprehension and skepticism about athletics reform has not prevented UNC officials and higher education commentators from claiming that the current collegiate athletic environment—one where a new “scandal” seems to appear weekly—will incite a broad push for systemic, meaningful change. “The balance between athletics and academics is now perilously close to going over to a tipping point where I think the trend is just not sustainable,” said Hunter Rawlings at a media teleconference earlier this month. “Everyone is now cognizant that something needs to be done in order to restore some more balance.”

Whether the Rawlings Panel report will be enough to enhance academic standards, curtail monetary influence, and reduce the widespread perception of “corruption” remains to be seen. If history is any guide, it’s likely that in 2036, some high-minded “reformer” will be taking a page from the Rawlings report’s recommendations, baffled by the fact that they were never adopted in the first place.