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The Tacoma News Tribune very recently published a very thoughtful editorial by Bill Virgin titled “It’s Not So Far-Fetched to See the Future of Collegiate Sports as a Business Entity” [http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/04/13/3147199/its-not-so-far-fetched-to-see.html?sp=/99/261/].
Virgin considers the following contrasts: the erosion of the concept of the amateur athlete and the rise of professional sports as a major entertainment industry, the rise in the profits generated by intercollegiate athletics and the low graduation rates among college athletes; and the tension between increased allocations to intercollegiate athletics ostensibly to market academic institutions and the rise in student debt and cuts to instructional budgets.
Virgin concludes that the end of amateur collegiate athletics is on the horizon—not because of the recent NLRB decision to allow the student athletes at Northwestern University to unionize but because that decision reflects a broader societal awareness of the hypocrisy of pretending that, at its top levels, this “big business” should be able to generate huge profits for everyone involved except for those most fundamentally involved, the athletes themselves.
Like Virgin, I don’t think that there is much point in mulling over the specifics of the NLRB decision on Northwestern. It seems more significant as a pivotal event than as a critical event: that is, it has created an awareness and a certain momentum that will extend beyond even its being overturned in the courts.
I am willing to predict how the professionalization of big-time college athletics is going to occur: one or two large, pro-labor states, say Illinois and California, are going to pass legislation allowing college athletes to unionize and to be paid, and the passage of that legislation will so alter the competitive balance in intercollegiate athletics that every other state will follow suit.
The biggest profit-generating programs, particularly in football, will continue much as they have been, with the exception that those profits will have to be shared with the athletes. At the schools in Divisions II and III will continue to maintain intercollegiate athletics as something closer to an amateur endeavor.
The most significant and interesting changes will occur in the universities that regularly finish near the bottom of the standings in the major conferences and those in Division I but outside of the major conferences. At those institutions where the profit margins are much narrower or even non-existent—especially at those where intercollegiate athletics are heavily subsidized to fuel the dream of one day joining the “big-time” programs—there will be intensified debates about the fiscal soundness of those expenditures and the actual value of the “branding advantage” provided by intercollegiate athletics.
I suspect that at most of these institutions, the decision will be made either to participate at the Division II or III levels or to seek massive support from alumni and other donors to sustain the participation in intercollegiate athletics. This won’t happen immediately. A few reckless university administrations will have to bring their institutions to the brink of insolvency first.
But it will ultimately play out this way because, after three or four decades of rhetoric about the need to operate academic institutions more like businesses, those truisms will finally be borne out. Non-profit institutions cannot afford to sustain a big business–a major subsidiary, if you will–that keeps reporting major losses in revenue, any more than an actual corporation could do so.