Home News Opinion | College Sports Are a Treasure. Don’t Turn Them Into the Minor Leagues.

Opinion | College Sports Are a Treasure. Don’t Turn Them Into the Minor Leagues.

by Staff

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In a teary locker room this month, after the Notre Dame men’s basketball team ended its season with a close loss in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the coach spoke not about lost opportunities on the court, but rather about the six master’s degrees (in addition to undergraduate degrees) that members of the team had earned, the lifelong friendships they had formed, and the invaluable lessons they had learned about leadership, teamwork and growing through adversity. The locker room is a classroom where the lesson that athletics can and should be part of a university’s educational mission is lived every day. Even Knute Rockne said that college athletics should be secondary to academics.

The nation is now immersed in the thrill of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament. (Our women’s team plays Maryland on Saturday.) But beyond the excitement, college athletics is in crisis.

It faces threats on a number of fronts: the growing patchwork of contradictory and confusing state laws regulating it, the specter of crippling lawsuits, the profusion of dubious name, image and likeness deals through which to funnel money to recruits, the misguided attempts to classify student-athletes as employees. Underlying all that is the widespread belief that college athletics is simply a lucrative business disguised as a branch of educational institutions.

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We call on universities to reaffirm that student-athletes are students first and to ensure that their athletic programs serve the schools’ broader educational mission, not the other way around. We call on the N.C.A.A. and athletic conferences to set policies that support that goal. And we urge Congress to protect the N.C.A.A.’s ability to regulate the competition for new players to ensure it remains fair and above board.

How did we get here? The history of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament is illustrative. It began in 1939 with eight teams and no television. It was so popular that it doubled to 16 teams in 1951, to 32 teams in 1975, and to 64 teams in 1985, then added a “play in” opening round in 2001 that was expanded in 2011. Television coverage grew with the tournament; CBS and Turner pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year (soon to be $1 billion a year) for the right to broadcast the games. As the tournament’s popularity increased, so did the value of a winning team — and the salaries of successful coaches.

The perception has grown in recent years that student-athletes, whose talent and hard work create so much revenue for schools and even coaches, get nothing in return. Echoing public opinion, courts have struck down longstanding N.C.A.A. regulations that barred student-athletes from profiting from their image and likeness. That has resulted in further antitrust suits against the N.C.A.A. and athletic conferences.

We have been vocal in our conviction that student-athletes should be allowed to capture the value of the use of their name, image and likeness (N.I.L.) — in other words, profit from their celebrity — for one simple reason: Other students are allowed to. If a college student is a talented artist or musician no one begrudges him the chance to make money from his skills. And athletes should as far as possible have the opportunities other students enjoy.

Unfortunately, the new N.I.L. rules have proven to be easy to abuse. To avoid the N.C.A.A. prohibition against directly paying athletic recruits, many schools funnel money to recruits under the guise of a supposed third-party licensing deal — regardless of whether a player’s name, image and likeness have any market value whatsoever. We must establish and enforce regulations that allow legitimate transactions while barring those that are recruiting enticements or pay-for-play.

The claim that student-athletes otherwise get nothing from a multibillion-dollar college sports industry is false — and the misperception behind it goes to the heart of what is at stake.

If a talented high school player heads straight to the minor leagues, he earns a paycheck. If he goes instead to college, he can earn something far more valuable: a degree. Economists estimate a college degree is typically worth about $1 million in enhanced earning power in a lifetime. At our institution, 99 percent of student-athletes who stay for at least four years get a diploma. Because less than 2 percent of all our student-athletes will play in their sport professionally, such a benefit is useful indeed.

At Notre Dame, revenue from football and men’s basketball goes to support 24 other varsity sports, including, most important, women’s sports — most of which did not exist on college campuses before 1972.

Since the advent of Title IX 50 years ago, no development in college athletics has been more significant than the rise of women’s sports. While many female athletes have benefited from N.I.L. deals, those who press for giving a higher percentage of revenue to football and men’s basketball players should understand that such a decision could endanger women’s athletics. At Notre Dame, that encompasses more than 300 female student-athletes, all of whom work just as hard as their male counterparts to compete at the highest levels in their sport and in the classroom.

Overseeing N.I.L. transactions is just the beginning. To enhance the educational experience and overall health and well-being of our student-athletes, the N.C.A.A. should also set a limit on how many days away from campus a team can require. Part of a college education is the interaction with others in the classroom, the dining hall and the dorms. Student-athletes deserve that experience, too.

The N.C.A.A. or the athletic conferences should create a national medical trust fund to benefit all student-athletes who are injured while playing, regardless of sport, school size or standing. And finally, we should set a policy so that players who leave school to go pro have the option to return — with the same financial grants they had the first time around. At Notre Dame, we have done this for many student-athletes, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, who returned last spring to complete his degree 28 years after leaving to play professionally.

Congress, too, must act to resolve conflicting state regulations, clarify that our athletes are students, not employees, and give the N.C.A.A. the ability to enact and enforce rules for fair recruiting and compensation.

Professional athletics must play a role, too. Though baseball and hockey allow players to go pro right after high school, the N.B.A. age requirement for draft eligibility forces most of the highly talented players to attend one year of college. The N.F.L. offers no alternative to intercollegiate football until a player has been out of high school for at least three years. Both policies push talented young players to enroll in college regardless of whether they have any interest in the educational experience it offers.

To ensure that players arrive at college only after making an informed choice — and a real commitment to learning — we urge the N.F.L. to establish a minor league alternative for young players. Similarly, we hope that the N.B.A. and its Players’ Union, in accord with the 2018 Commission on College Basketball, use the upcoming contract negotiations to eliminate the “one and done” rule and allow 18-year-olds to proceed directly to the league.

College athletics is a treasured national institution. Professionalizing teams, treating athletes more as employees than as students and weakening the vital connection with the educational mission of their colleges will rob college athletics of its special character. Gradually it will be seen as merely a version of the professional minor leagues. More important, that approach will not serve the vast majority of young men and women who pursue a college degree and grow personally while they play the sport they love. We can support them and preserve the institution that serves them.

John I. Jenkins has been president of the University of Notre Dame since 2005. Jack B. Swarbrick is a vice president and the director of athletics at Notre Dame.

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