I promised last week after not being able to reach him by deadline that I would let Tulane president and college sports reformer Scott Cowen speak about the realignment of the Bowl Championship Series. The major conference presidents have agreed in principle to add a fifth bowl to the series, which will give smaller conference schools a better chance at playing in the lucrative games.
I'd hammered Cowen, the founder of the Coalition for Athletic Reform, for saying his group was about all kinds of reform in major college sports, not just grabbing more BCS money for smaller conferences, and then declaring, "As far as I am concerned, our coalition is now out of business" as soon as more BCS money was secured.
"Sure, I'll reconcile those statements," he said when we spoke by phone late last week. "I probably prematurely said that the coalition is going out of business."
Cowen said that in the four months since he assured me that the coalition was about more than the BCS, he'd become a member of the NCAA Board of Directors, and that the coalition's other two main concerns had been added to the formal agenda of future board meetings. Those concerns, he said, were the new, tougher membership criteria for Division I-A, going into effect in August, that "might have the effect of increasing the cost of competition at a time when we should be going in the opposite direction," and academic reform.
"Since I'm now a board member," Cowen said, "I can now use that position to advocate for those positions that we had as a coalition. So it's not like those issues are not important anymore or they've disappeared. In fact, they're in a better place than when we first talked."
Still, he says other university presidents and chancellors have been calling to urge him to keep the coalition together, since it was so effective in getting the BCS changed.
"So I may go back to my colleagues and say, 'You know what, maybe we should stay in existence longer, until these other two issues that we said we originally were about actually come to fruition,'" he said. "So in the event the NCAA perhaps goes in a different direction than I would hope, we have that forum of the coalition to talk about the issues again."
Cowen is a genial and thoughtful business professor who seems to genuinely enjoy debating these issues. I told him that I keep coming back to the contradiction in his coalition's goals. Though I understand the group's point that the BCS excluding smaller conferences created a two-tiered Division I-A that would continue to make it more difficult for the smaller schools to compete, it seems to me that the BCS and its escalating profits are a fundamental part of the problem that needs reforming. They're not using strip clubs to attract football players to the University of Colorado and other schools if there's not a huge pot of gold to be had at the end of the season.
"Whether it's the BCS or even March Madness -- I wouldn't just point to the BCS -- there's been a particularly tremendous escalation of commercialism in intercollegiate athletics," he said. "I think there's a whole issue there about commercialization, and one of the interesting sort of side conversations of the BCS, which we never really got into in any detail, is a playoff. Because even though everybody wants a playoff, and there's a lot of merit to it because that's the way we run our other sports, there is a feeling by a lot of presidents that a playoff in and of itself will make it even more commercial and head more toward a professional model.
"So I think what a lot of presidents are finding is, is there a way to stem the tide? It's not going to be easy to roll it back, but is there a way that we can not escalate this any further than it's already escalating itself?"
When I pointed out that adding a fifth bowl game is an escalation, Cowen said there are costs and benefits to any action, and while the escalation of commercialism is a cost of adding a fifth bowl, it's outweighed by the benefit of including more programs.
"I don't think you're going to see, if you will, the commercial aspect of the BCS change just because of the fifth bowl," he said. "It is true that it will mean more money, but the more money that we're talking about is unbelievably small relative to what the BCS right now is. Because remember all that's going to happen is probably a current bowl that already exists and has a reasonably high payoff will be elevated."
Cowen said that adding a "plus-one" game, a championship game after the current set of BCS bowls to match the two top teams, which many fans wanted to see this year with USC and LSU, would be a different story.
"There, I think you have every right to say, 'Now you've just reached a whole new level of exposure to commercialization that wasn't there before,'" he said. "Because a 'plus-one' game, if it's added on, could be worth $30-$40 million a year. Well, that's really sizable."
In other words: Now you're talking real money!
"Yes! Your argument holds a lot of weight on that one."
Finally, I asked Cowen to address what I call the Big Lie of college sports, the fiction at the foundation of the enterprise, which is that big-time college athletes are not employees of a multibillion-dollar business, but simply college students engaging in an extracurricular activity that's part of their education.
I told him I believe that Big Lie is behind all of the NCAA's well-publicized and embarrassing problems. If you're not paying a guy a paycheck, he's going to find other ways to get paid, and you're going to find other ways to attract him. And anything that's done to deal with the various academic and financial scandals that are rolling across the NCAA like waves at high tide are, to mix the metaphor, akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
"Sure. You know, I agree with your sentiment, to be very honest with you," Cowen said. "I think what has happened as we've moved further and further from the collegiate model to the professional model because of increased professionalization, it does begin to look like and feel like semiprofessional. And then you get into the relations you talked about in terms of employee and employer. As you know there's been movements in certain parts of the country to look at it that way and to begin to pay for that, and I think you're going to see more of that in the future unless we can begin to in some way curb if not roll back the commercialism of it.
"I think you're going to see more of what you just said. Because you're right, those relations look more and more [professional]. It's probably localized in 30 or 40 institutions. I'm not sure it's at all institutions, but I think at the end of the day there's probably 40 institutions in the country, maybe 50, I don't know, where it's really evolving to that level, where the stakes are now so high that they're beginning to look like employment relationships more than anything else."
Perhaps the most severe abuses are limited to 30 or 40 or 50 schools, I told Cowen, but when I wrote about the problems at Colorado, I got letters saying, "Hey, I was a swimmer and I and every other swimmer got laid on all our recruiting visits."
"You may be right," Cowen said, "but we have to be careful not to generalize from anecdotes that it's a problem everyplace. But it raises a legitimate question that maybe it's more pervasive than we all think it is."
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