Big-time college sports are a mess. Given the academic and financial corruption and unacceptable behavior that are epidemic in Division I-A football and Division I basketball, there's plenty of hand-wringing over that uncontroversial statement. But one person who's actually trying to do something about it is Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University.
Last year Cowen commissioned a five-week study of the Tulane athletic department, which loses $7 million a year. That led to a vote by the school's board of administrators about whether to deemphasize athletics and drop football. The board voted unanimously to stay in Division I-A but also passed a resolution to "change the culture" of the program.
In July Cowen founded the Presidential Coalition for Athletics Reform -- "presidential" as in university presidents -- which is battling for "access and equity in college football's postseason play, higher academic standards for student-athletes, and lower operating costs for intercollegiate athletics," according to its original press release.
The coalition comprises presidents and chancellors from schools that are not part of the Bowl Championship Series, the lucrative football postseason agreement among the six biggest conferences and four biggest bowl games that crowns the national champion. So far, the efforts of the coalition have been aimed at non-BCS schools gaining access to the championship competition and money that the BCS controls.
In Monday's column, I likened "fixing" the BCS, the most visible symbol of the rampant commercialism that's at the root of the corruption plaguing college sports, to changing the air-freshener in a condemned outhouse. Cowen argues that the coalition was forced to deal with the BCS issue first because the contracts that govern it expire in two years, so negotiations to include non-BCS schools must begin. A committee of BCS and non-BCS presidents met Sunday in New Orleans and agreed to work on finding a solution more equitable for the smaller conferences.
Last week, Cowen played host at Tulane to the National Symposium on Athletics Reform, at which academic and athletic administrators and other experts discussed reform of college sports in a pair of panel discussions -- about general reform and the BCS -- and a keynote address by NCAA president Myles Brand, the former Indiana University president whom one reformer referred to as "one of us."
In two separate phone conversations, from his New Orleans office and from a car in Miami, Cowen spoke about the BCS, reforming college sports, and what he calls getting universities "off the revenue-addiction kick."
The group is the Presidents Coalition for Athletics Reform. When I first heard that name, I thought, Great, let's clean up the corruption and the rampant commercialization in college sports. But Topic A is redistributing booty from the BCS. Am I missing something?
Well, you are a little bit, but not totally. It's unfortunate, and it was only a timing issue, quite honestly, why the BCS issue had to be dealt with right away. The contracts are running out and they're in the process of beginning discussions on a new round of contracts.
Our issue is not about money here. Our issue is about access and creating a two-tiered system in intercollegiate athletics. To put it even more crisply: If you took all the money off the table, say, "Forget about money," and the system stays the same, we'd still be arguing very vehemently that there ought to be change in the system. We don't think it's good for Division I-A because it creates, in the eyes of our people here at the university and out there in the public, the perception of a two-tier system, which is not good. And it also creates a system that is inconsistent with how we handle all other sports in intercollegiate athletics.
But even before the BCS there was always kind of a two-tiered system. Marshall was never playing for the national championship or in major bowl games, even if they went undefeated. It was a de facto two-tiered system.
Yes, it was de facto. But that de facto got institutionalized in 1998, and by institutionalizing something, it really did exacerbate the two-tier system, and that's having all kinds of implications on our universities in terms of our ability to attract and retain coaches, our ability to attract the right kinds of student athletes across the board. Prior to 1998 that existed, but to a much lesser degree.
I guess I need more convincing that it's not about the money, because there's so much money. It seems to be about the money. And if there's real reform, the money would take care of itself, wouldn't it?
Let's just take the BCS piece itself. If there was real reform there, you're absolutely right, the money takes care of itself. That's why you've probably never heard of me or the coalition ever using the word "money" or "revenue." We feel like those issues will take care of themselves. What we believe in is, there's got to be reasonable access and we have to get rid of the branding problem.
Well, let me read a quote from you from last week's symposium, from your remarks "Don Quixote's 10 Thoughts Regarding Athletics Reform," which is a great title: "It is time to reel athletics in, change the culture and operations of this part of our universities, and rethink athletics' role with the context of our missions as institutions of higher learning." Doesn't arguing about BCS money kind of go against that? Isn't that a contradiction?
I don't think so. I think it's only a contradiction in two cases. One is if money is all we're talking about, and secondly if we weren't talking about all the other components of reform. One thing I think was very clear from my brief remarks at the symposium is that for me, the BCS is just one very small piece. It just so happens that's the piece we have to deal with right now. If that's all we did, though, King, I would say to you you're right, we didn't do anything. It's got to be part and parcel of other initiatives going on.
Well, you've talked about the NCAA initiative about academic performance. You've talked about, Gee, maybe the rankings should be based on graduation rates -- then we'd be in the championship game. That sort of thing.
I guess I'm a little cynical about money. I feel like you can make all the rules you want about academic performance, but if there's enough money on the table to be made by winning football games, people are going to cheat to follow whatever rules there are. And the tougher the enforcement is, the more creative the cheaters are going to be.
Well, you know, we've set up a system -- and I'm not just talking about the BCS, I'm talking about intercollegiate athletics -- where we have become revenue addicts. And any system that's based on "You've got to have more revenue to be able to survive" is going to cause the kind of behavior you're talking about. So what I'm looking for is countervailing factors to get us off the revenue-addiction kick. That's why the academic reform can be helpful. I think approaches to student-athlete welfare can be different. I think even the BCS could be different and help with the money issue in terms of making us less dependent on revenue.
However, I think it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The best we can do is perhaps slow the rate of growth. And maybe over the long term, especially through the academics-reform piece of it, actually make some real change, but that's going to take a long period of time.
What did you think of [former college basketball star and U.S. Rep.] Tom McMillen's comment that it's very difficult to achieve real change when the money is so great? He compared it to campaign-finance reform: Everybody wants it, but somehow it never quite happens because there's just so much money on the table.
I totally agree with Tom. If you build a system that makes you overly dependent on revenue, you become revenue addicts and you can't reform. And that's in fact what we have right now. Now, if you're cynical, you say, "Don't even try to do anything because nothing's going to make a difference." But this is where I come back to the academic-reform piece of it, because I think if you have the right academic reform, there is a possibility over time of aligning more closely the academic values that should be in athletics with the rest of the institution.
Something I found interesting from the symposium was [author, economist and former Princeton president] Bill Bowen talking about the studies he's done where he's found a lot of this stuff about athletic success translating to larger successes for the university, a lot of that is a myth. I'm wondering why it doesn't become obvious for university administrators to just say, "Enough!" If the reason for allowing the basketball coach to play by his own rules or for building a $400 million state-of-the-art facility is that success translates to success for the university, without that reason, why does that whole culture survive?
I think it does because for most university presidents, especially if we're talking Division I-A, athletics is a sacred cow. And if you venture into these waters there's a high probability you may lose your job. So you need to be a very courageous person to wade into those waters and raise these issues, much less make any changes. I certainly learned that last year in spades, just by raising those issues. Only mild things happened to me, like crazy little Web sites, but most other presidents, there would have been so much pressure to fire the individual, which is what they wanted to happen to me last year, even for having raised the question. Forget doing anything about it. So I think the answer is a pretty simple one, and Jim [former University of Michigan president and Big Ten chairman James Duderstadt] and Bill were cute about it later on. They said, "Listen, it's easy as former presidents to say this." Because remember, when they were presidents they weren't saying this.
Right. In fact, I got letters. I mentioned some of what Duderstadt said in my column the other day, advocating reform, and I got letters from Michigan people saying, "What a hypocrite this guy is! He poured billions into the athletic department."
Yeah. But, to Jim's credit, he even was teasing with me. "I can be much more open now because I'm a former president." Well, if nothing else, I did raise those issues publicly when I was president. And you saw what happened here. Fortunately, we're not an athletics-crazed institution. That doesn't mean there aren't people who are fond of it, but we're not that way, so we were able to have our conversation and make some decisions. But that's why people don't do it, King. It's a sacred cow.
You've talked about restricting the time that students are forced to spend on their sport. But that sort of thing, cutting back on time requirements, we've all heard stories about voluntary practices that aren't so voluntary.
I don't think any one school can do this unilaterally. There has to be sort of multilateral agreement to do what I'm talking about.
I use that term. You know, what's the likelihood that's going to happen? Probably not at all.
Right. It's kind of like real multilateral disarmament. Non-metaphorical disarmament. I'm not holding my breath for that either.
Absolutely. I agree with you.
I keep running up against that. Almost any idea that comes up sounds pipe-dreamish.
You know what? That's true. That's why I said near the end of my remarks, one of the things I'm beginning to become more enthusiastic about is an athletic czar that can make decisions. I liken it to a turnaround situation at a company, where you don't have a turnaround in a company through democracy. You need a strong leader to come in there and say, "This is the way it's going to be because this is for the betterment of the company."
But in order for the members to say, "Let's have a czar, let's give him those powers so he can limit us," you have to have that multilateral agreement that we need to limit corruption and commercialism, and therefore we need to limit our own revenues.
I think we're saying the same thing, but I would say it a little differently. I would say those that make up the governing board of the NCAA, which are primarily university presidents, would have to willingly agree to actually cede power from individual schools and conferences to the NCAA. And the question is whether they'd be willing to do that or not. My sense is they would not be willing to do that.
The only time I think it would ever happen, quite honestly, is if intercollegiate athletics should face a crisis situation of monumental proportions, so that there was no other way to get this thing turned around. Short of something like that I don't think they would ever voluntarily give up those powers.
OK, so since the czar thing is a bit of a pipe dream, what's a realistic goal for reform in the next, let's say, five years?
I think it all deals with the academic-reforms initiative that's going on now. I think that has the greatest promise of help. Is that going to make a huge difference within the next five years? No. Might it over the next decade or decades to come? Yes, I think it could.
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