Report: Big-time college sports hurting academic mission

College spending per football player skyrocketed 70 percent compared with only a 6 percent increase in spending per student, with the Southeastern Conference lavishing a nation-high $262,468 on each player, according to findings by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics that shed light on the escalating imbalance between academics and sports.

Unsustainable costs, NCAA governance, graduation rates, congressional intervention and the unionizing of athletes were among the topics discussed Monday when the Knight Commission convened in Miami to air ideas for reform while “Looking Ahead to the Next Decade of College Sports.”

The Knight Commission’s revealing Athletic and Academic Spending Database illustrates trends from 2005 through 2012, including 70 percent growth in coaching salaries in the five conferences with the largest athletic budgets.

The gap between academic and athletic spending is greatest at FBS schools and smallest among those that don’t field football teams.

“There is a struggle between the core educational mission and commercial values,” said Charles Ambrose, president of the University of Central Missouri, who described tradeoffs schools make to reach what they mistakenly think is the “financial mecca” of Division I.

The NCAA plans to streamline its structure while granting some autonomy to the “Big Five” power conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference) so they don’t split off on their own, said Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest president and NCAA board of directors chair.

Many of the NCAA’s flaws are because of lack of leadership in modernizing it, said Bob Bowlsby, Big 12 commissioner.

“The NCAA is not a one-eyed ogre in Indianapolis,” he said. “It’s the decisions we collaborated on. We’ve caused universities to be viewed through a professional lens.”

Bowlsby’s suggestions ranged from revamping recruiting and transfer rules to a freshman “year in residence” to increasing transparency of high school transcripts of incoming athletes “in a way that will make presidents and directors of admission uncomfortable.” He said athletes spend too much time practicing, and the 20-hour weekly limit is treated as “a joke, even to the point of falsification of records.”

“People who seek to circumvent our rules have latitude and ingenuity and technology and prerogatives far beyond what we have to stop them,” he said of weak NCAA enforcement. “Cheating pays. Without power of subpoena, it’s remarkable we get to the bottom of anything.”

Improved graduation rates are a Knight Commission success story, as Walter Harrison, University of Hartford president and chair of the NCAA’s Academic Performance committee, cited an 82 percent rate among Division I athletes; an increase to 73 percent from 56 percent among mens’ basketball players, and an increase to 67 percent from 56 percent among black athletes.

Donna Lopiano presented the Drake Group’s proposal to seek congressional action in granting the NCAA an antitrust exemption. In turn the NCAA would use revenues for athlete benefits, such as injury insurance and scholarships that extend to graduation.

The group promotes academic integrity and opposes commercialization of collegiate sports.

“The financial pressures are so great neither presidents nor the NCAA have been able to impose discipline on spending,” Lopiano said. “What can the president do if the biggest contributor on the board of regents insists on paying the football coach $5 million? The conflicts of interest have to be removed.”

Athletes’ rights deserve more emphasis, said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. He is assisting Northwestern football players in their effort to form a union. He advocated payments for living expenses; more attention to concussion prevention; and freedom for athletes to be paid for appearances and product endorsements.

Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner and chair of the board at Georgetown, his alma mater, echoed other attendees in his opposition to athlete salaries, but said the college sports model is in need of “transformative change, not incremental change.”

“First of all, the NCAA should be the NCAAA — the National Collegiate Athletic and Academic Association,” he said.

The well-being of athletes must be paramount, said Tom Farrey, journalist and director of the Aspen Institute’s Sport and Society Program.

“Athletes are entering college in a precarious mental state because of the pressure on them,” Farrey said. “I wonder if the NCAA’s future is its original purpose: The health and safety of student-athletes.”