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The death of major college sports as we’ve known it

David Colburn
Posted 2/28/24

Well over a hundred years ago, alarms were being sounded about the deleterious effects of sports on the world of higher education. Football, played without pads or helmets in the early days, was …

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The death of major college sports as we’ve known it


Well over a hundred years ago, alarms were being sounded about the deleterious effects of sports on the world of higher education. Football, played without pads or helmets in the early days, was deemed so brutal that the Harvard faculty voted to end its football program in 1884 for two years. Of note there, it was the faculty, professors and instructors, who made the decision, not college administrators. That practice continued into the early part of the 20th century, when in 1905 faculty organizations eliminated football at Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Nevada, Stanford, and a few other institutions.
A 1929 Carnegie Foundation report, “American College Athletics,” somewhat ironically authored by a gentleman with the last name of Savage, summed up the objections to football and the incursion of athletics into higher education in the late 1800s and early 1900s thusly: “They included charges of ‘over-exaggeration,’ demoralization of the college and of academic work, dishonesty, betting and gambling, professionalism, recruiting and subsidizing, the employment and payment of the wrong kind of men as coaches, the evil effects of college athletics upon (high) school athletics, the roughness and brutality of football, extravagant expenditures of money, and the general corruption of youth by the monster of athleticism.”
If ever there were a case to be made for history repeating itself, this would be it.
The road to today’s oblivion began innocently enough on Sept. 30, 1939 with the first televised broadcast of a football game between Fordham University and Waynesburg College, a pair of afterthoughts in today’s world of big-time college athletics. Ten years earlier the Carnegie report concluded that, “There was a general lack of comprehension respecting the implications of college sport and a complete failure to foresee the development that it was destined to undergo,” and certainly no one watching that first broadcast could have imagined how billions of dollars would eventually be funneled into college athletics via television broadcast rights.
Where money flows, litigation is sure to follow, and in 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s broadcast plan was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. This opened the door for individual conferences like the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and schools such as Notre Dame to negotiate their own broadcast deals.
This year we’ve seen the wholesale implosion of traditional athletic conferences, with the PAC-12 losing all but two of its teams to the Big 10, SEC, and Big 12. The Big 10 and Big 12 obviously don’t care about basic academics, either, as neither conference has had those numbers of members for years. What those names have is recognizable marketing power, something more important that mathematical accuracy these days. But traditional rivalries are falling by the wayside as institutions clamor for more and more almighty dollars to feed their ravenous sports beasts.
These days, major college athletics functions more as minor league professional franchises than as extensions of a university’s educational mission. It’s been estimated that the University of Texas, one of college sport’s biggest operations, spends over $300,000 per athlete annually for coaching, uniforms, stadiums and training facilities, travel, etc. Not a penny of that money comes from institutional state dollars, either – Texas funds its entire athletic budget from external sources, including media and athletic equipment vendor contracts, ticket sales, and alumni donations.
The most significant recent changes have come in how that huge athletic money pie is divided up. Players, who in the past were restricted to receiving college scholarships and some limited equipment perks, saw how a multibillion industry was profiting from their cheap labor, and they went to court seeking more. Their first huge win was securing the right to be compensated for their names, images, and likenesses, and NIL deals, as they’re called, have already shaken up the playing field. Players want to go where the money is, and both recruiting and the NCAA scurried to put together rules to govern NILs and the affiliate university groups created together to fund them.
Shadeur Sanders is a relatively good quarterback for what’s been a very average University of Colorado football team. But Sanders tops college athletes in NIL deals worth over $4 million because he’s incredibly marketable as the son of flamboyant ex-NFL Hall of Famer and current Colorado coach Deion Sanders. That’s a little better than a college scholarship and meals at the team training table.
The NCAA prohibited NIL deals from being used as recruitment incentives, although now business-savvy athletes know what schools have the best NIL offers. But this week, a federal judge in Tennessee blew the lid off any pretense of old-style college recruitment by ruling that the NCAA cannot enforce its NIL restrictions.
It’s now open season for those colleges with the biggest NIL wallets to pursue high school recruits and transfer athletes with financial offers for their services. Only the naïve would believe that some of that wasn’t happening before the ruling, but now it’s been legitimized. The schools with the deepest pockets can buy the best players. Last fall, Minnesota head football coach P.J. Fleck warned that the Gophers would lose players if more NIL money didn’t flow to the school.
“We had players that were here that are now gone, playing at another school that should be playing here right now, because of NIL. We didn’t pay them enough,” Fleck said. “The good players won’t be here. We’ll be a Triple-A ballclub for someone else.” Indeed, why would a top Minnesota football recruit play for the Gophers if Ohio State dangles an NIL deal in his face worth four-or-five-times what Minnesota has to offer?
The ruling will remain in effect until the federal case in question is fully decided, but there’s a chance it could become permanent. At least it would remove a layer of deception prevalent in supposedly amateur college sports for decades, legitimizing a titanic shift in the role money plays in collegiate athletics. That, coupled with another player-focused ruling giving athletes the right to unionize, will sadly bring the curtain down on an era of college sports as we’ve known them. The rich will get even richer, and the poor even poorer.
Alas, it was all foreshadowed nearly 100 years ago in the Carnegie Foundation report: “The fundamental purpose of intercollegiate contests ought to be the diversion or development of undergraduates, alumni, other members of the college family and their guests. As matters now stand, their fundamental purpose is financial and commercial. The monetary and material returns from intercollegiate athletics are valued far more highly than their returns in play, sport, and bodily and moral well-being.” We have no one to blame but ourselves.