The Final Four is upon us, and with it the fiction that National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball is an amateur competition.
The NCAA has a vested interest in this fiction, because the bulk of its annual $1.14 billion in revenue comes from its March Madness tournament. Critics fall into two broad camps. The first complains that those generating the cash—the players—are the only ones who aren’t paid. The other argues that college sports has become a big business, corrupting our universities.
Indeed, the NCAA even came up with its own metric—graduation success rate, or GSR—because it said that the federal graduation rate (used for students who don’t play sports) fails to capture the full reality of college athletes’ experiences. The great advantage of the GSR is that it allows college athletic departments to claim academic progress based on inflated numbers.
The proposed “solutions” depend on which complaint camp you fall into. Those who worry that universities are unfairly profiting off the labor of student-athletes favor ending the pretense of amateurism by paying them. One recent move in this direction was to allow college players to benefit from name, image and likeness deals. If a jock signs an NIL deal with a local car dealer, it allows the school to say it isn’t paying him. In fairness, this was largely forced on the NCAA by state legislatures.
By contrast, those concerned with colleges serving as de facto minor leagues for professional football and basketball have different priorities. They would like to see the NCAA—which just abolished its requirement for standardized tests—tighten academic standards. Though the economists’ answer—pay the players—is more honest, it’s a nonstarter because the whole attraction of college sports is the idea that the guy wearing the jersey is a student like everyone else.
What all these solutions have in common is university presidents, trustees and staffs outsourcing their primary responsibility to outsiders. But if a university won’t hold its students to academic standards, can we really expect the NCAA to do so?
Now imagine this: On the eve of March Madness, a university that has earned a slot gets in a dispute with the NCAA about the governing body’s new requirement that athletes maintain a minimum grade point average. Imagine too the university refuses to certify this for the NCAA, on the grounds that academic standards are none of the NCAA’s business. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because it really happened—in March 1966, with the University of Pennsylvania.
That year the Penn men’s basketball team won its first-ever official Ivy League championship, going 19-6 overall. But the Quakers were ruled ineligible for the NCAA competition after the university refused to file a confirmation that Penn was in compliance with the minimum 1.6 GPA. Yale took the same position.
A New York Times article on March 5, 1966, laid out the university’s view:
“The chief contentions of the Ivy schools are (1) that the N.C.A.A. has no jurisdiction over academic standards and (2) that the Ivy standards are above 1.6, anyway.”
Try to imagine a college president today doing anything remotely similar. It’s impossible. For one thing, such a stand would be highly unpopular with students, alumni and fans. For another, today it would mean giving up significantly more revenue.
But the biggest difference between now and then is that the liberal academy has lost its nerve. In 1966, university presidents were confident enough to insist that when it came to a university’s mission, they knew their own business and would thus set and enforce their own rules. Excellent schools would take pride in having academic standards that were much higher than the NCAA minimums.
Today men’s college basketball is a $15.8 billion business, according to the NCAA. When the Final Four—the Miami Hurricanes, San Diego State Aztecs, Florida Atlantic Owls and University of Connecticut Huskies—meet on the court this weekend in Houston, their four head coaches will earn a combined $7.2 million in salary. One player, Hurricanes guard Nijel Pack, is being paid $800,000 in a two-year NIL deal. The rosters, moreover, are filled with transfers who assuredly did not enter the portal as students seeking a better engineering or philosophy program.
Still, the real disappointment isn’t the athletes, kids who can’t be blamed for getting what they can while they can. Or even the NCAA. It’s the universities, which have watered down their academics—and not just for athletes.
“Too many degrees are tickets to nowhere, and there ought to be more outrage and a reckoning,” says Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Over a third of our college seniors couldn’t show any significant cognitive gain for their college years.”
In 1966 when Penn—out of principle—told the NCAA to buzz off, many people, probably including the players on the Quaker team, thought it arrogant for the university to deny them an opportunity by refusing to accommodate. Today we see the alternative.
This post was originally posted in the Wall Street Journal on March 28, 2023.