The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Profit motives make fixing college sports nearly impossible

Calls for reform are more than a century old. Yet the same problems persist.

Michigan’s Isaiah Livers wears a T-shirt that reads “#NotNCAAProperty” as he walks off the court during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on March 20. (Robert Franklin/AP)

The start of March Madness kicked off with critiques from student-athletes regarding their inability to market their own likenesses. Criticism of the NCAA intensified when the stark difference in treatment between the male and female athletes became public. Both demonstrate a vivid reality about the NCAA: With more than a billion dollars on the line, it has long operated as a business that is shielded by its nonprofit status.

And yet, since their introduction to college campuses, sports and athletics have courted scandal and generated controversy. Calls for reform have been repeatedly ignored or at best partially implemented. Indeed, the core issues — lack of collegiate and NCAA oversight, investments in and revenue from athletics, allegations of cheating and misconduct and no clear definition of what it means to be a student-athlete — have remained relatively consistent across the decades and continue today.

Yale and Harvard established rowing teams in 1843 and 1844, respectively; their first annual regatta was held in 1852, and it is the oldest still-held collegiate sporting event. This inaugural competition immediately revealed the potential profitability of college sports, as a railroad official sponsored the event. The dollars weren’t great enough to invest in facilities or equipment. Instead, the money was used to cover the pub tabs for the athletes. Nonetheless, this first event set a precedent that intercollegiate athletics would never just be about pure competition.

By 1892, the concept of professional coaches took hold when the University of Chicago hired Amos Alonzo Stagg to coach its football team. He then used his connections to the board to have personal sponsorships, endorsements and moneymaking opportunities approved. Stagg’s role was a new concept in higher education; he negotiated a full-time, tenured (yes, tenured) position that focused on coaching, as well as the monetization of his own brand and secondarily the sport.

By the turn of the 20th century, intercollegiate athletics had shifted from sport-based competition to a commercialized spectacle. As then-Princeton President Woodrow Wilson noted, “So far as the colleges go, the sideshows have swallowed up the circus and we in the main tent do not know what is going on.” While the reference was generally about student behavior, the comment also applied to growing disregard within athletic departments for university rules and values, and highlighted the growing prevalence of scandalous behavior and illegal activities such as academic cheating and misuse of university funds.

President Theodore Roosevelt convened college and university presidents in 1905 to discuss changes in intercollegiate athletics amid calls to reduce the violence inherent in them following the death of 19 collegiate football players. The presidents of the three most prominent colleges at the time, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, declined to attend the summit, and their absence set the tone for prominent university leaders sidestepping future calls for reform. However, athletic directors and coaches from the three institutions did attend, and they led the charge for safety reforms and the retention of amateur status for collegiate athletes.

Based on the forward momentum stemming from the meeting with Roosevelt, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was formed in 1905 and ratified in 1906, changing its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910. The organization prohibited recruitment and limited eligibility to four years for nonprofessional athletes. Of note, the IAAUS bylaws allowed coaches and institutions to financially benefit from intercollegiate athletics but specified that students could not be paid. Despite this stipulation, the NCAA itself soon focused on monetizing these same athletes’ performances and popularity.

The NCAA’s birth did little to quell the troubled state of collegiate athletics or calls for reform, in part because few changes were actually implemented. If anything, the commercial underpinnings grew stronger. A pattern emerged: Athletic watchdogs, government agencies and the general public would call on the NCAA to enact fiscal and sponsorship changes, but the organization fell short of any real reform after colleges and universities balked at potential decreases in revenue.

For example, in 1926, the Carnegie Foundation funded a three-year study of intercollegiate athletics, and noting the growing commercialization of the industry, its findings included a call for university presidents to provide greater oversight over athletics. And a 1931 U.S. Office of Education study of 69 land-grant university athletic programs documented that nearly all coach salaries were higher than professors’ pay and labeled college football as big business for the public institutions.

This assessment only grew more accurate after World War II, when the monetization of athletics broadened to include the selling of television broadcast rights, setting the stage for the billion-dollar industry we see today.

In 1951, the calls for reform took a legal turn when the New York City district attorney investigated a gambling connection between college basketball and organized crime that resulted in convictions of players from seven universities for point shaving. That same year, a cheating scandal among 70 U.S. Military Academy cadets, many of whom were athletes, raised questions regarding how much control institutions had over their student-athletes. Continuing the cycle of public scandal followed by calls for reform, the American Council on Education (ACE) created a Special Committee on Athletic Policy, which made recommendations including creating a code of professional ethics for coaches, decreasing football bowl games and addressing recruitment issues.

Yet nothing much changed. A 1974 report published by ACE from George Hanford, then-vice president of the College Entrance Examination Board, found that because the NCAA handled athletics, instead of academic accreditation associations, intercollegiate athletes were divorced from institutional and academic missions, with the NCAA free to prioritize moneymaking off competition and student-athletes.

In 1984, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the NCAA’s vast power by ruling that an NCAA limitation on the broadcasting of football games violated federal antitrust statutes. But this decision only made things worse, empowering conferences to negotiate their own broadcast deals on behalf of institutions. The Supreme Court’s decision refocused the NCAA’s attention on the other big money sport: basketball, with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament becoming a multibillion-dollar television property.

Today, college athletics is an enormous business. Athletic departments across all divisions reported a whopping $18.9 billion in revenue in 2019; most of which came from the only two Division I men’s sports — football and basketball — that don’t lose money each year and keep the other 15 men’s sports afloat.

Earlier this year, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a football-specific call to action to prioritize “education, health, safety, and success of college athletes,” after the conferences — no doubt aware of the vast financial ramifications — chose to move forward with regular and postseason play despite risks to the health and safety of the players during the coronavirus pandemic. The NCAA made a similar decision regarding men’s and women’s basketball, cognizant that March Madness, which was canceled in 2020, produces $1.18 billion in advertising revenue. The NCAA didn’t address the elephant in the room — the billions in advertising revenue at stake — when making a decision about this year’s tournament and instead focused on outlining the pandemic logistics, retaining the fan experience and praising their own leadership. Also notably absent in their news release was the student-athlete experience that grounds its mission.

These decisions are indicative of how, for over a century, the desire for prestige and money has driven the NCAA and member institutions to deprioritize student-athletes and instead place higher value on commercializing intercollegiate athletics. Real change and reform will occur only when leaders are willing to rethink this prioritization of profits and turn down the endorsement and media dollars associated with competition. Until reform is enacted, the history of corruption in and prioritization of commercialization of athletics will serve as a foreshadowing of its future.