It's time for the NCAA to pull its head out of the sand and admit that revenue-producing college sports are professional.
We know this from recent news stories telling us that Division I universities spend an average of 10 times as much per student athlete as per student nonathlete, and from the proposal to authorize, as Tubby Smith put it, a "free market" in transferring athletes.
We all know it is a fiction to argue that revenue-producing sports exist to contribute to the central function of the university -- to educate students and prepare them for the world after they graduate. These sports exist for the money they bring in.
The accompanying falsehood that most of the players in these sports want a college degree undermines academic standards and personal behavior. These players truly covet a professional sports contract, and who can blame them?
By the time they start at a university, they've worked for many years to hone their athletic, not their academic, skills. Many can't meet basic academic standards. They would find useful, not a degree, but a small fraction of the billions of dollars sports bring to the universities -- dollars that currently are not shared with athletes.
What's to be done? Universities will not give up revenue-producing sports, nor would a highly vocal fraction of the students and alumni let them. For most university presidents, abolishing football, basketball and/or hockey would be tantamount to resigning.
We need to preserve university-affiliated teams for the students and alumni, support college-level athletes with a salary appropriate to the money they bring in (while offering them an education if they want it), and provide a reasonable product for the TV networks to insert between their ads. All this while dropping the damaging hypocrisy that these sports have any relation to the mission of a university.
Here is a plan to achieve these goals while allowing the university proper to focus on its mission of education, not showbiz: Each university, for a substantial fee, would lease its franchise -- the rights to its name, logo and facilities -- to a professional sports company that would hire a team to represent the institution. The team would compete with similar teams representing other universities. All the expenses for the teams, including facility upkeep, would be the responsibility of the franchiseholder in return for the income from admissions, concessions and TV.
Rather than football, basketball and hockey teams composed of reluctant students enrolled only because of athletic ability, let's have unabashed professionals. Allow any athlete representing a university to attend free, but don't require it. Pay the athletes a sensible wage and let the arcane rules on recruiting and remaining in good academic standing go away.
Athlete misbehavior would be handled by the franchiseholder in a professional way -- stern penalties for the lesser players and effective amnesty for the stars. Freed from the administration of these teams, the university could go about its business of teaching, research and service without fear of athletic scandals. Periodic renegotiation would allow the university to change companies if it was dissatisfied. The franchiseholder could move to another university, players and all, if it were offered a better deal.
"College" sports would prosper under this plan. The cost of higher education for the nonathletes would probably decrease, or at least rise more slowly, since athletic departments would shrink noticeably with only nonrevenue sports to administer. Students and alumni would still have teams to root for, and newspapers would still have something to write about. Athletes would be compensated for the money they bring in, and a university with a losing team could fire not just the coaches but the whole organization, players included.
The only entity threatened by this arrangement would be the NCAA, which might be put out of business. Who would miss it?
P.T. Magee is an emeritus professor and former dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota.