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Thad Williamson Joins The Symposium

For our latest contribution to our
on-line Symposium on The State Of The Game, we have a detailed and thoughtful
piece from Thad Williamson. You've seen his work on Inside Carolina. We've
e-mailed with Thad off and on for some time now and have always been impressed
by his level approach to the game, the issues the game has, and also the
significant rivalry between Duke and UNC. We suspect he might throw a few things
during the game, but we have always had pleasant discussions about our
preferred schools. We're very happy he was willing to participate. Having
contributors like Thad, Jay Bilas, and Bill Brill (and also the very intelligent
responses from readers) makes this a de facto success. Thanks guys.

Also, Thad asked us to make a couple of
corrections. Where he had previously said 1,250,000 per school, the actual
number should be 1,580,000 per school, and where he listed 50--150 scholarships,
he meant to say 75-175, and where he discussed compensation, he meant 50,000,
not 40,000, all based on one miscalculation.

Bilas |
Responses To Bilas
| Bilas
Responds
| More
Responses
| Brill | Bilas Responds To Brill


For the Love of Money, or For the Love of the Game?

The NCAA is in the process of soliciting bids for broadcast rights to its
Division I men's basketball tournament for the years 2003-2010. The round
figure of $4 billion has been bandied about as the likely price tag for the
rights--which would come out to about $1,580,000 a year in revenue for each
of the 315 schools now playing Division I basketball. Depending on tuition
rates and room and board costs, that'd enough to pay for about 75-175
athletic scholarships a year at each school--if the pie were divided
equally among the schools.

Now, I'm glad that the NCAA is reportedly going to require the winning
network to have the capacity to show all 63 tournament games live
nationally--such a move is long overdue and will be a boon to
geographically displaced fans everywhere (although it will cost sports bar
owners a few bucks in lost customers during the tournament's first three
rounds.) And if the pie were in fact divided equitably and all the money
went to fund scholarships, that would not at all be the worst outcome in my
book. But let's pause for a moment and consider what the NCAA, barring a
drastic sea change, won't do with its basketball pot of gold:

  • Invest money in improving the game by undertaking a major effort to
    improve the quality of officiating
  • Improve the quality of the product by reducing the length and frequency of
    television timeouts, returning to the 1980s standard of 3 TV timeouts per
    half (at the 15, 10, and 5 minute mark) of 90 seconds in length. Such a
    move would of course cost the NCAA moolah, but would improve the flow of
    the games immeasurably, returning it closer to a sport with two halves
    rather than one with ten four-minute segments. Give the coaches an extra
    20-second timeout to play with in each half to compensate, but make 5
    minute long stretches of uninterrupted play again the norm.
  • Establish some form of financial compensation for the athletes themselves.
    While I believe that more generous living stipends are urgently needed for
    all scholarship athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds, I would be opposed
    to payments of large sums of money to players still in school. But players
    should get some form of remuneration for the cash they create for the
    school--in the form not only of ticket sales and TV revenue, but an array
    of merchandise from replica jerseys to computer games. The appropriate time
    for such remuneration? When the player graduates--to provide a cushion in
    the first several years out of school. If 10% of the NCAA tournament money
    were set aside for this purpose--$50 million each year--and we assume that
    about 1,000 Division I basketball players a year earn their degrees, then
    each graduating player would receive a lump- sum $50,000 payment. Under
    this plan, only players who played all three years (that's right, I said
    three) and actually earned their degree would be entitled to the payment.
    (Junior college transfers who went on to graduate might be permitted a
    half-share.) All players would get an equal share regardless of their own
    skill level and regardless of how well their team did. Such a system would
    provide a tangible incentive to players to go ahead and get their degree,
    and might even encourage more borderline high school kids to take care of
    their academics in order to have a shot at a D-I scholarship.
  • Re-establish freshman teams (with a 6 scholarship athlete maximum, the
    rest of the team to be filled by walkons, 1 coach and 1 graduate assistant,
    and a 16 game schedule consisting exclusively of conference participants),
    while at the same time making freshmen ineligible for the varsity. Such a
    move should be coordinated with the establishment of an under-21
    professional league for players not wanting to go to college bad enough to
    be willing to sit for a year.

    Now, you may or may not think any of these proposals for how the NCAA could
    best steward the resources generated by the enormous cash cow that is the
    Division I men's tournament are good ideas. That's fine. But my larger
    complaint is that the NCAA has become so focused on revenue- maximizing
    that it won't seriously consider taking any measure for the good of the
    game or the good of the student-athletes themselves that might threaten the
    dollar intake.

    From the point of view of Tobacco Road, this mentality has already produced
    some painful annoyances--like those long TV timeouts. The absence of either
    an under-21 league or a material incentive to graduate and complete one's
    eligibility has increased the volatility of the league's personnel, as
    North Carolina and Duke know so well. But those annoyances haven't yet
    fundamentally damaged the ACC basketball, even if the talent level now is a
    bit less than it used to be. (I think the ACC's aggregate talent peaked in
    around 1989.)

    Unfortunately, however, there are signs that the NCAA's dollar-first,
    everything-else second (or never) attitude is seeping into a place where it
    could do real damage to Tobacco Road itself--the offices of the ACC's
    athletic directors and university presidents. Frankly, the public record
    and statements of the A.D.s from both the northern and southern extremes of
    the conference frighten me, and there is clearly a buzz in favor of
    eventual expansion, with the express purpose of getting that football
    conference playoff payday. At the same time, just about every school now
    depends on corporate sponsorship in one way or another. Fortunately, there
    are still some boundaries on corporate involvement (such as NCAA
    limitations on the size of corporate logos on uniforms) and a few schools
    still willing to hold the line on particular issues (such as Carolina's
    laudable refusal to allow corporate advertisers access to the Smith Center
    interior.)

    But at some point folks who care about the ACC need to stand up and say
    "What are college sports for?", and challenge the treadmill of increasing
    expenses requiring increasing revenues requiring increased concession to
    the corporate sponsors. I appreciate that the nonrevenue sports do not pay
    for themselves and depend on the moneymakers to survive. But raising
    revenue is not the only way to bring budgets in line: The alternative is
    simply, to hold costs down.

    How? For starters, I have long favored the idea of cutting football
    scholarships back to no more than 60 (an idea Barry Jacobs has recently
    endorsed): As the former UNC great Charlie Justice put it in an interview
    several years ago, "A lot of players spend four years practicing and never
    get to play. They are cannon fodder for the first teams to beat up on
    through the week. They would be better off studying chemistry or science..."

    Secondly, schools need to call a halt to the expansion of athletic
    department bureaucracies. Third, it's time for conference-wide
    "disarmament" agreements with regard to facility expansions. One approach
    would be to state that no school would be allowed to spend over, say, $40
    million on facilities expansion over any 10 year time period. Even
    relatively well-off schools like UNC have almost spent themselves into the
    ground in upgrading football facilities, expenditures which simply force
    other schools to spend more to keep up. Like southern governors giving away
    millions in tax incentives to lure out-of-state corporations, the ACC's
    athletic departments need to kick the facility expansion habit.

    Fourthly, it is time for state legislatures and the public to step up and
    say that if nonrevenue sports serve an important educational purpose--as I
    think they do--then the public should be willing to offset some of their
    costs through direct financial support, instead of continuing to make their
    existence wholly dependent on the revenue sports.

    The NCAA, The ACC, Money,
    Honesty, And Expansion

    In my view expansion for the sake of expansion would be a grievous blow to
    ACC basketball and by extension college basketball as a whole, and I don't
    think anyone should be satisfied that there is pressing financial need for
    such a move until all of the above steps are taken. I'm not opposed to
    possibly adding another first-rate school (like a Penn State), but moving
    to a two-division format would destroy the attractiveness of a conference
    that was built on home-and-home rivalries and an "everyone under one roof"
    conference tournament. (Fortunately, complicating the case for expansion is
    that it's just about impossible to come up with 2 balanced basketball
    divisions without splitting UNC and Duke up, which is unthinkable.)

    The fundamental question is whether the product itself--the game of
    basketball--is going to be subordinated to the athletic directors' revenue
    maximizing goals. I'm totally opposed to selling out the current structure
    of the ACC for any sum until there is absolutely convincing evidence that
    there is no other way out--and I don't mean definitions of "no way out"
    that exclude fundamental structural changes in, for instance, football.

    Similarly, I am appalled by the continued unwillingness of the NCAA to use
    its NCAA Tournament funding in ways that would improve the quality of the
    game and the quality of experience for student-athletes--an unwillingness
    that in the long run is only counterproductive. A better officiated game
    with fewer television timeouts would be a more popular, and, in the long
    term, a more lucrative game as well. The institution of an under-21 league
    combined with an end to freshman eligibility might take some talent out of
    the game but would foster a commitment to the team on the part of those who
    played--and would mitigate the hypocrisy of having athletes in college who
    are there only because there is no alternative route to pursue their sport.

    I think the money is there to make all this happen--so long as money itself
    is not considered the top priority by the NCAA schools. (All it would take
    on the TV timout front, for instance, would be for the NCAA to tell the
    networks, "We're capping the value of your bids at $3.7 billion, but we
    will take the network that can put on the fewest in-game ads to give us
    that $3.7 billion.")

    But even if I'm wrong, and in the long run the scholarship system of
    college athletics is financially unsustainable even after the NCAA
    tournament money, it does not necessarily follow that the universities
    should simply accelerate the process of selling out hook, line, and sinker
    to corporate sponsors. Consider the following two possibilities in the case
    of a long-term financial crunch: In the first scenario, athletic
    scholarships are done away with and all athletes are required to apply for
    financial aid on equal footing with the rest of the student body. (Walter
    Byers, the former NCAA head, now advocates such a move as a matter of
    principle, but I'm suggesting it as a last- ditch stopgap measure.) Needy
    athletes still get the aid they need to go to school, but a lot of money is
    saved overall. In the second scenario, we keep the scholarship system, but
    put corporate logos on the uniforms that are as large as the players'
    names, place logos on all the playing fields, have 3 minute long T.V.
    timeouts (or change the college to game to 4 quarters, which is simply
    another way to squeeze more commercials in), build luxury boxes in both
    football and basketball venues that are set aside for corporate use, and
    squeeze corporate signage into every available nook and cranny within the
    arena. (Been to Cole Field House lately?)

    Which of these two scenarios would be worse? I suspect basketball fans
    might disagree among themselves, and perhaps reasonably so. But this born
    and bred Tobacco Roader would much prefer seeing the universities keep
    their integrity and their distinct identity--even if it means scaling back
    the amount of money spent on sports and perhaps having a lower-quality
    sport--rather than to see the universities remove all remaining
    restrictions on the commercialization of college sport.


    The ACC Today: Enjoy What We've Got, While We've Got It

    Most of what I've written in this piece about the structure of college
    sports has been critical. But let me be clear about where ACC basketball in
    particular is right now: it's a good time, and a time to be cherished,
    given the possible structural changes on the horizon which may send the
    league into the abyss of expansion and full-scale commercialization.

    One of the great things about college sports is that while it's easy for
    long-time observers to get cynical about the enterprise, the athletes who
    play the game, although increasingly sophisticated, are almost never
    cynical or jaded, but bring a refreshing enthusiasm that is the lifeblood
    of the college game. There are very few ACC players I've had a chance to
    interview that I didn't like, or that I thought the general public would
    not like; any league that's got kids the caliber of a Chris Carrawell or a
    Kris Lang has a lot going for it.

    Likewise, I'm impressed by the caliber and overall integrity of the
    coaching staffs now at the helm in the ACC, even though significant
    philosophical differences remain between the different programs. And at the
    level of temperament and keeping the game in perspective, I'm much happier
    with a league that has Herb Sendek, Dave Odom and Bill Guthridge than a
    league of self- promoters and loudmouths. There a couple of head coaches
    whose sideline tempers I think are excessive--Gary Williams and Coach K.
    But even in those cases I can respect it, because it's coming out of
    devotion to their respective program and schools, not out of
    ladder-climbing, and neither has come close to any Bob Knight type public
    episodes which embarrass the sport.

    Overall, coaching quality is a major strength of ACC basketball, and the
    conference should encourage the schools to hold on to good people and
    resist the temptation to hire flashy promo men types in order to please
    impatient boosters. I hope Sendek and Odom stay anchored at their schools
    for a long time, and as long as reasonably intelligent choices are made by
    Carolina and Duke in their next coaching moves--I'm already writing in the
    first-class-all-the-way Tommy Amaker for 20 years as the Blue Devil head
    man--those programs should also have excellent representatives well into
    the distant future.

    The Nets And The Internet

    The only real thorn in the side that I'm concerned about--apart from the
    long term structural issues discussed above, and my desire to see the 3
    point line moved back--is excess, unhealthy fanaticism on the part of
    school loyalists, fanaticism which is in part exacerbated by the internet.
    Obviously I'm pleased that there are additional outlets for information and
    opinion, and that fans now can follow things throughout the league pretty
    closely no matter where they live. But the "everything goes" principle
    inherent in the internet, which places few checks against ignorance or
    stupidity, can create problems. As far as the ACC goes, on the one hand I
    think the journalistic web sites (as well as the more visible fan sites)
    have a responsibility to exercise discretion over what they print. But on
    the other hand, it also would be wise for school and athletic department
    officials not to over-react or take too seriously everything that's out
    there, except in the most egregiously offensive cases (i.e. the Elton Brand
    "letter.")

    The more difficult area is recruiting. If you subscribe to the idea that
    kids should be able to choose where they go to school, and that coaches
    should be allowed to cultivate relationships with players before they are
    invited to come to school, and that information about who is likely to go
    where is fair game for journalists, then you have to live with the fact
    that something like the present-day recruiting scene is all but inevitable.
    But my concern is that the enhanced media attention is breaking down
    appropriate boundaries: I don't think the public has a right to know
    everything that happens or is said in the recruiting process (on the top of
    the fact that I think it's misguided in the extreme to make mid-flow
    pronouncements about how well such and such coach is doing or where a
    program is going based on one or two kids' comments or school decision.)
    And I worry that some media outlets, instead of just covering the story,
    are becoming part of the story (and perhaps actually influencing where a
    player winds up.)

    To be sure, it would be wrong to stop players or their families who are
    eager to talk from talking to the media. But this may be an area where,
    believe it or not, a new NCAA guideline could do some good: Recruits should
    be advised to limit their own access to the media, agreeing to speak by
    phone to outlets only one day or night a month and limiting in-person
    interviews to games or summer camps. Any such restrictions on media access
    would have to be, legally and also ethically, voluntary--if a prospect
    wants to post on an internet message board, so be it. But I think the
    recruits themselves would be better off and the process itself would be
    less prone to misinformation or abuse if the NCAA (and the high schools
    themselves) actively campaigned for the voluntary adoption by recruiting
    targets of fairly tight restrictions on media access to themselves. There
    are more important things the recruits should be doing with their time
    anyway, and there's always plenty of time to talk later.


    Postscript: The Justice of Compensating Players

    At the outset of this piece, I suggested that offering some form of
    post-graduation financial compensation to players could help stem the tide
    of early entries to the NBA, and would also reward schools with good
    graduation rates by helping them attract quality recruits.

    There is of course, also a simple justice argument on behalf of athletes
    being compensated--the NCAA now gives coaches complete control over
    players' scholarships [including right to revoke them at any time], bans
    players from earning money for using their talents, and places strict
    limitations on how much a school can compensate an athlete. At the same
    time, student-athletes put in 10-12 hour days of sport and study, and in
    most cases of necessity make academic work a distinctly second priority,
    except perhaps during summer school--thereby cheapening the value of the
    education that is supposed to be the athlete's reward for service rendered
    to the university. If college sports continued to be an "amateur"
    enterprise, all this might be reasonable, but this is no longer the case,
    and something's got to give. Requiring schools to make four-year
    commitments on grant-in-aids, and providing
    some form of substantial compensation--preferably at the end of athlete's
    college careers--would suffice to end talk of athletes being exploited by
    their schools.

    But, you may ask, what about non-revenue athletes? Presumably men's
    basketball players could be paid from the men's basketball pool, and
    football from a football pool, but what about the other non-revenue
    athletes? Do they have a right to a share in the pie?

    My answer on that one is simply, no--nonrevenue athletes are not creating
    the big bucks for the universities and have no just claim on those
    resources. But nonrevenue athletes in need should see their stipends
    increased. And, unlike basketball and football players, they should be
    permitted to use their talent and name to make money--be it running a camp,
    a t-shirt business, endorsing a product, working at an athletic store--just
    as would any other student. (Cash gifts to athletes, however, should still
    be forbidden.) While I do see several strong reasons why ACC basketball
    players should not be making car commercials for local dealers while still
    in school, I really don't think any harm will be done by letting
    lower-profile athletes earn money any way they can. In other words, don't
    give nonrevenue athletes a share of a pie they really didn't create, but
    don't put restrictions on what they can and can't do that don't apply to
    other college students.

    Thad Williamson has covered UNC basketball for Inside Carolina magazine
    since 1995. He has day jobs as as a graduate student in political theory at
    Harvard University and as a research consultant to the National Center for
    Economic and Security Alternatives in Washington, DC.