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With college sports at crossroads, unspoken problem facing NCAA is race

With the NCAA inundated with lawsuits and public opinion at an alltime low, an unspoken problem facing college sports is race. 

After another thrilling NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the smashing success of the inaugural College Football Playoff, college sports have never been a hotter commodity. The massive commercial success of non-profit educational institutions managing and operating for-profit sports business enterprises has enabled many coaches and administrators to earn millions in salaries and several billions more have been made for the conferences, schools and NCAA in television revenue.

Such success has brought intense scrutiny. Several lawsuits have been filed challenging the NCAA’s control and questioning the definition of amateur status, most prominently former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon’s suit against the NCAA. And a group of Northwestern football players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, won the right to unionize (the matter is on appeal to the National Labor Relations Board).

With billions at stake, the temptation to cheat has never been higher, and as a result of this immense pressure, academic scandals have stained the reputations of the University of North Carolina and Syracuse. Throughout these most challenging, contentious times facing the NCAA, the “elephant in the room” is race.

One idea how to fix college sports: allow athletes union membership

This is not new. Sociologist Harry Edwards, historian Taylor Branch and journalist Joe Nocera all have offered excellent commentary on the issue of race and the NCAA. Just look at the breakdown of black males on campuses in the power conferences: in general, the percentage of black males in the student body of most universities is low. But the percentage of black males participating in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball on these same campuses is extremely high.    

The NCAA, academic scandals and race                                  

Are the UNC and Syracuse academic scandals an aberration or an indication of a systemic issue surrounding race? Where is the outcry from the NCAA? From the Congressional Black Caucus? In light of these scandals, how discriminatory are the age requirements in the NFL and the NBA? To provide some answers to these questions, NCAA executives and all journalists who cover college basketball and football should familiarize themselves with a 2013 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's School of Education's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, entitled "Black male student-athletes and racial inequities in Division I College Sports.” That study analyzes the six major conferences over a four-year period and speaks to the exploitation of student-athletes in football and basketball, and specifically the plight of the black male athlete. The report concludes, "Perhaps nowhere in higher education is the disenfranchisement of black male students more insidious than in college athletics."

This report holds the greatest evidence of the separate and unequal collegiate educational experience available to the typical black male athlete attending an institution that competes in a major conference. For the majority of students, the college experience is academic, with a degree awarded after a specified course of study; it serves as fundamental preparation for a career. However, for far too many black males granted athletic scholarships at these schools, this degree (if it is even earned) more often is an empty one.

According to the Penn study, there have been 32 academic scandals from 1952 to 2010, concerning the “athletes’ course.” That doesn’t include the UNC scandal, which spanned 20 years and involved not only black athletes, but also the African-American Studies department. Those on athletic scholarships are unable to experience the benefits of the education the word “scholarship” implies.

When an all-black Texas Western team beat an all-white Kentucky squad coached by Adolph Rupp to win the 1966 men’s basketball title, it opened the floodgates to talented minority athletes, particularly in football and basketball. This game also set in motion an intense competition for the services of black athletes.

While the demand for top players and the revenue generated by the power conferences has continued to grow, benefits for athletes have continued to decline: for many the athletic scholarship has become synonymous with ”devalued education,” which is particularly egregious when considered against the backdrop of Brown v. Board of Education. The athletic scholarship has become a “separate but equal” version of a college education. But unlike the “separate but equal” edict that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1954, this one generates billions of dollars annually.

Sadly, in the last 50 years the academic machinery in many of these institutions, contrary to the spirit and intent of Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has collectively devolved into a second-tier education for NCAA athletes in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball. Today, in the power conferences, approximately 75% of the scholarship athletes in football and basketball are black. It’s important to note that efforts to maintain the eligibility of these athletes are not to be dismissed as, or confused with, efforts to compensate for poor or diminished intellect; while students may be underprepared for the typical rigors of academic life, a healthy distinction lies between “unprepared” and “unintelligent”. The NCAA and its institutions of higher learning are failing these athletes because they have no incentive not to do so. 

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “It's Time to Give College Players a Cut,” in which I argued that college athletes were being exploited, and, like the pros, deserved a percentage of the millions of revenue they were generating for their universities. I made the case that colleges shouldn't just "give the ball to LeRoy" anymore without a comprehensive benefit package and access to real education. As public schools have increasingly failed to prepare inner-city students nationwide for the rigors of academic life and as college tuition costs soar, more and more students from lower income families count on athletic scholarships. For all of the billions these young men are generating, they are entitled to the actual education they were promised.

The consequences of these practices have been harmful to the black community. Where the Brown v. Board of Education case was supposed to open the door for blacks, the NCAA has found a way to not only increase the value of the athlete’s performances for these universities, but also devalue the one commodity they offered athletes in return. The repercussions for this are far-reaching and lie at the heart of why there are so few blacks in collegiate or professional sports management, upper level franchise or league positions. In a 2010 study, Dr. Richard Lapchick of The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported that black men represented only 6.6% of Division I coaches and 7.4% of Division I athletic directors.    

The Amateur (NCAA) vs. Professional Eligibility Conflict                   

In 1983, I testified before Congress, along with former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and several prominent college football coaches to oppose a bill called "The Collegiate Student-Athlete Protection Act of 1983," which was designed to encourage college student-athletes to complete their undergraduate education before becoming professional. The hearing was prompted by the signing of Heisman trophy winner Herschel Walker to a multi-million dollar contract by the USFL’s New Jersey Generals prior to completion of Walker’s college eligibility at Georgia. The bill was introduced to preclude the professionals from raiding the colleges of their most talented football players before they graduated. At the time, there was enormous fear of the potential upheaval that student-athletes abandoning college for the riches of professional football before completing their college football eligibility would cause within the business of college sports: a poaching of talent would make collegiate teams far less marketable. 

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The hearing sought to answer under what conditions could Walker, or any other student athlete, lose his amateur status and become professional. Senator Arlen Specter probed then-NCAA president John Toner, Joe Paterno and Bo Schembechler on how a young athlete could make such a decision without counsel of an attorney/agent, particularly since attorney/agent counsel was prohibited under NCAA rules. They not only failed to answer the question directly, but the interplay between them also suggested that they had had many prior discussions regarding amateur and professional eligibility.

Senator Specter further pressed them on the existence of the perceived “gentlemen's agreement” between the NFL and the NCAA not to sign contracts with undergraduates until after the expiration of the athlete’s college eligibility. Such an agreement, if it existed, would be a violation of antitrust law. Amidst laughter in this public hearing, they expressed their disappointment in the USFL’s signing, but would not admit to having a group agreement. USFL commissioner Chet Simmons explained that the league only approved the signing for fear of an antitrust lawsuit filed by Walker’s lawyer and that the USFL was there in support of the bill since it would allow for a league rule to prevent such legal action. Rozelle testified that for the past 50 years, NFL rules honored the amateur athletes’ four years of college eligibility and would continue to do so in spite of a potential legal challenge. On the other side, NFL Players Association executive director Ed Garvey criticized the NFL for its disregard of the Haywood v. NBA decision in a similar case. 

In 1971, basketball star Spencer Haywood challenged the NBA’s four-year draft eligibility rule. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where Haywood won. The Court ruled that Spencer would suffer "irreparable injury" if forced to remain ineligible in that a substantial part of his playing career would be diminished, and that he had a "right to earn a living."  I strongly opposed the bill and testified on behalf of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). The Haywood standard changed the business by granting the athlete the right to choose. The fear of a mass exodus from college amateur to the professional NBA was unfounded. This hearing set the stage for the next 30 years for the actions taken by the NCAA and the professional leagues (with the complicity of the NFLPA and NBPA) to direct, to their mutual benefit, the suppression of college athletes’ rights to enter the workplace based on their unique ability to perform. 

The NCAA, its coaches, the NFL and the USFL were there seeking antitrust protection because a new league had broken with tradition and an unspoken honor code, but mainly it highlighted the difference in the intent of the senators and their desire for the student-athlete to get an education while the NFL, NCAA and USFL focused entirely on the question of eligibility. Thankfully the bill failed, but the power of the NCAA and its political lobby was clear, as was the collaboration, which looks more like collusion, between the NCAA and the professional leagues.

The NCAA and a revenue-sharing business model                                  

What Ed O'Bannon's victory over the NCAA means moving forward

Despite the constant calls to blow up the NCAA, the situation is fixable. A solution would capitalize on what the revenue-sharing and salary cap system has accomplished for the NFL, NBA and NHL. They have all guaranteed a negotiated, fixed percentage of revenue to the players. In return they have been assured of cost certainty, increased franchise values and competitive balance. These factors are equally as important to the NCAA, its conferences and universities.

Much has been written about the current state of big-time college sports, its economics, leadership, de facto "minor leagues" and the professionalization of the revenue-earning sports of football and basketball. The issue is larger than football and basketball revenue, given the state of race relations in the country and the limited opportunities afforded young black males.

In 1983, the NBA used some out-of-the-box thinking to create revenue sharing and the salary cap. Desperate for an economic solution, the owners made the players partners. The arrangement became the new standard in professional sports. The NCAA must change its business model and approach. Here are five things the NCAA can do to fix the current crisis it is facing (note: these things would help college sports in general):

1. Establish a separate NCAA Division of Conferences with a required minimum gross revenue in football and/or basketball, beginning with the NCAA's Power Conferences.

2. Embrace a revenue-sharing business model and recognize a Trade Association representing the college athletes’ interests as partners. Define the sources of revenue and establish a fixed percentage to be shared with the athletes. The percentage will create the basis of a competitive market for high school athletes as each financial package will be a function of the conference’s or university’s revenue. This percentage will also fund the comprehensive benefit package, which would include the athletes’ individual trust funds.

3. Legislatively, amend the definition of aid to scholarship athletes to include a comprehensive benefit package composed of the following “quality of life” benefits: full medical coverage year-round, life and disability insurance (including concussions), emergency travel fund, full “cost of attendance” adjustment, allowance for family to attend an allotted number of home games, lifetime tuition for an undergraduate degree, and an individual trust fund.

4. Create a group licensing plan for use of the athletes’ likenesses. Individually, each qualified athlete would accrue a minimum of $5,000 per season from the plan and that would be placed in the athlete’s individual fund as directed by the Court order in the O’Bannon case, to be accessed beginning at age 30. The trade association, via class counsel, would monitor the agreement and administer the fund with the NCAA, the conference and the University. 

5. Enhance individual player rights and the development of a dispute resolution procedure.

College sports are at a crossroads. It’s not just about money and amateurism, it’s also about race. History has shown that it will take the courts and government intervention to change institutional behavior.

Charles Grantham represented the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) from 1976-95, the last seven years as its first executive director. He transformed the NBPA into a multi-faceted organization and was an architect of the revenue-sharing business model while protecting the NBA's greatest asset—its players. Currently, he is a sports business consultant as well as an advisor to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Sports Business Initiative and an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University's Stillman School of Business and at New York University's Tisch Institute of Sports Management, Media and Business, where he teaches and lectures at the graduate level on negotiation, collective bargaining and dispute resolution in professional sports.