Crime, Corruption, and College Sports

According to sports news service ESPN, "The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York announced federal corruption charges against four NCAA assistant basketball coaches on Tuesday.  The three-year FBI probe focused on coaches being paid tens of thousands of dollars to steer NBA-bound players toward sports agents, financial advisers and apparel companies."

Gambling goes on in casinos.  Likewise, college sports, albeit unintentionally, seems to be designed to ensure that corruption will take place, and rampantly.  No one should be surprised when it is found.  And with college sports, as with so many other social institutions, the more obvious the solution, the more resistance there is to implementing it.

In order to understand how to eliminate college sports corruption, we first need to review how we got here.  Only then can we reform the broken system and make it into something of which colleges can be proud.

I do not possess an authorized history of college sports, but try to picture the college scene as it once was, before college sports became the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today.  Students showed up for class.  They heard professors make the announcement: oh, by the way, if any of you would like to be on the sports team, report to the athletic field (or gymnasium) on Saturday at 10 a.m. for tryouts.

In capsule form, that was how it was, at least for a brief time.  College sports teams were for college students.  They were similar to the high school teams with which students were already familiar.  High schools and colleges were for the education of students.  Sports were a pleasant sideline activity, usually under the direction of a physical education department. 

As time went by, sports were taken more and more seriously.  Winning became important, not just for school pride, but as a recruiting tool to attract freshman students.  A college with a winning sports program had prestige, and this translated into more generous donations from alumni associations and other sources.  Thus, not only did colleges try to attract better students, but they set out to attract better athletes, many of whom were abysmal students in their academic pursuits.

Colleges tried, but failed, to retain the amateur nature of the teams.  It was hopeless from the beginning. 

When vast amounts of money are involved, when coaching salaries begin to increase astronomically based on winning statistics, then it is unreasonable to expect that student-athletes will merely be students who play sports.  They will become athletes who, almost as a sideline, attend classes, whether or not they actually learn anything.  At that point, the system has already become corrupt, and worse yet, it has become a system that will always be vulnerable to corruption.  Determined and unscrupulous characters will always find their way in.  There is simply too much money at stake for them to pass by.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the effects on a great many student-athletes were devastating.  The story was all too common.  It goes something like this. 

A young man is recruited to play college sports on a scholarship.  He takes classes designed simply to keep his grade point average at an acceptable level.  He learns nothing, but he excels at his sport.  For four years of eligibility, he is a local hero, receiving the adulation of adoring fans.  Then, one day, his eligibility expires, and he is suddenly off the team.  He does not graduate.  He applies for a job, where he expects his past fame and glory to stand him in good stead, but he is offered only a pittance of a wage for menial work.  Soon, he is embittered and discouraged.  The college, for which he made a lot of money, and for which he may have sacrificed his health, offers only a token of gratitude, if anything at all.  He is forgotten by his former fans, many of whom are disappointed to see that he has become what they call a loser in life. 

He spends his final years on a skid row, and when he finally dies, no one takes notice.  His bones may lie somewhere in a mass, unmarked pauper's grave.  The echoes of thousands of students, cheering him on, had long since become a distant memory.

For a very few, professional sports offered a reprieve, but oftentimes, this only delayed the inevitable.  I once met an elderly man who had played college football in the 1930s.  He was fortunate.  He did not need a scholarship, coming from a family of means.  After graduation, he was offered a spot to play on the Cleveland Rams.  He thought it might be fun, despite the low pay, and inquired as to health insurance.  What happens if I am injured and unable to continue playing?  The answer was, very honestly, we will drag you to the sideline, and after that, you're on your own.  He wisely declined the offer.

But many a professional athlete could find no other work, and when he became too old or too hurt to play, he eventually suffered the dread fate of the has-been college sports hero.

Fast-forward to the present, and we find that many of these concerns have been addressed, and in some cases remedied, but the problem of corruption persists, and will continue to persist, so long as we maintain the fiction that college athletes can be amateurs.  They are not pure amateurs, and everyone knows that.  Athletic scholarships to college have their good points, but they are a poison pill that invites dishonesty.

No student should ever be admitted to college except on scholastic merit.  There are plenty of deserving students who never get to college because they are squeezed out by an academically nonperforming student who excels at sports.  But students who excel at STEM subjects do not attract millions of dollars for the college, nor for coaches.

There are two solutions, at polar opposites.  One of them is for colleges to hire athletes in the same way that they hire any other employee.  They would be professional teams wearing a college logo.  The other solution, is to return to the days described near the beginning of this commentary, the days when only true students could play as amateurs for a college team – students who were first, foremost, and primarily in college to receive an education, and for whom sports were purely extracurricular.

Neither of these solutions is going to be welcomed by the industry.  This is why corruption in college sports may be prosecuted and punished, but it will never be eradicated.  It's baked into the cake.

According to sports news service ESPN, "The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York announced federal corruption charges against four NCAA assistant basketball coaches on Tuesday.  The three-year FBI probe focused on coaches being paid tens of thousands of dollars to steer NBA-bound players toward sports agents, financial advisers and apparel companies."

Gambling goes on in casinos.  Likewise, college sports, albeit unintentionally, seems to be designed to ensure that corruption will take place, and rampantly.  No one should be surprised when it is found.  And with college sports, as with so many other social institutions, the more obvious the solution, the more resistance there is to implementing it.

In order to understand how to eliminate college sports corruption, we first need to review how we got here.  Only then can we reform the broken system and make it into something of which colleges can be proud.

I do not possess an authorized history of college sports, but try to picture the college scene as it once was, before college sports became the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today.  Students showed up for class.  They heard professors make the announcement: oh, by the way, if any of you would like to be on the sports team, report to the athletic field (or gymnasium) on Saturday at 10 a.m. for tryouts.

In capsule form, that was how it was, at least for a brief time.  College sports teams were for college students.  They were similar to the high school teams with which students were already familiar.  High schools and colleges were for the education of students.  Sports were a pleasant sideline activity, usually under the direction of a physical education department. 

As time went by, sports were taken more and more seriously.  Winning became important, not just for school pride, but as a recruiting tool to attract freshman students.  A college with a winning sports program had prestige, and this translated into more generous donations from alumni associations and other sources.  Thus, not only did colleges try to attract better students, but they set out to attract better athletes, many of whom were abysmal students in their academic pursuits.

Colleges tried, but failed, to retain the amateur nature of the teams.  It was hopeless from the beginning. 

When vast amounts of money are involved, when coaching salaries begin to increase astronomically based on winning statistics, then it is unreasonable to expect that student-athletes will merely be students who play sports.  They will become athletes who, almost as a sideline, attend classes, whether or not they actually learn anything.  At that point, the system has already become corrupt, and worse yet, it has become a system that will always be vulnerable to corruption.  Determined and unscrupulous characters will always find their way in.  There is simply too much money at stake for them to pass by.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the effects on a great many student-athletes were devastating.  The story was all too common.  It goes something like this. 

A young man is recruited to play college sports on a scholarship.  He takes classes designed simply to keep his grade point average at an acceptable level.  He learns nothing, but he excels at his sport.  For four years of eligibility, he is a local hero, receiving the adulation of adoring fans.  Then, one day, his eligibility expires, and he is suddenly off the team.  He does not graduate.  He applies for a job, where he expects his past fame and glory to stand him in good stead, but he is offered only a pittance of a wage for menial work.  Soon, he is embittered and discouraged.  The college, for which he made a lot of money, and for which he may have sacrificed his health, offers only a token of gratitude, if anything at all.  He is forgotten by his former fans, many of whom are disappointed to see that he has become what they call a loser in life. 

He spends his final years on a skid row, and when he finally dies, no one takes notice.  His bones may lie somewhere in a mass, unmarked pauper's grave.  The echoes of thousands of students, cheering him on, had long since become a distant memory.

For a very few, professional sports offered a reprieve, but oftentimes, this only delayed the inevitable.  I once met an elderly man who had played college football in the 1930s.  He was fortunate.  He did not need a scholarship, coming from a family of means.  After graduation, he was offered a spot to play on the Cleveland Rams.  He thought it might be fun, despite the low pay, and inquired as to health insurance.  What happens if I am injured and unable to continue playing?  The answer was, very honestly, we will drag you to the sideline, and after that, you're on your own.  He wisely declined the offer.

But many a professional athlete could find no other work, and when he became too old or too hurt to play, he eventually suffered the dread fate of the has-been college sports hero.

Fast-forward to the present, and we find that many of these concerns have been addressed, and in some cases remedied, but the problem of corruption persists, and will continue to persist, so long as we maintain the fiction that college athletes can be amateurs.  They are not pure amateurs, and everyone knows that.  Athletic scholarships to college have their good points, but they are a poison pill that invites dishonesty.

No student should ever be admitted to college except on scholastic merit.  There are plenty of deserving students who never get to college because they are squeezed out by an academically nonperforming student who excels at sports.  But students who excel at STEM subjects do not attract millions of dollars for the college, nor for coaches.

There are two solutions, at polar opposites.  One of them is for colleges to hire athletes in the same way that they hire any other employee.  They would be professional teams wearing a college logo.  The other solution, is to return to the days described near the beginning of this commentary, the days when only true students could play as amateurs for a college team – students who were first, foremost, and primarily in college to receive an education, and for whom sports were purely extracurricular.

Neither of these solutions is going to be welcomed by the industry.  This is why corruption in college sports may be prosecuted and punished, but it will never be eradicated.  It's baked into the cake.