Friday, January 21, 2011

College athletics reform and where it should go

If Ronald A. Smith had his way, the NCAA would revive a decades-old rule eliminating freshman eligibility in sports. He’d enforce rules through the “death penalty” for sports programs, and he’d limit salaries for coaches.

A professor emeritus of sports history, Smith spoke at Penn State on Thursday to discuss themes from his book Pay for Play: Reflections on Big-Time College Athletic Reform. In his book, Smith discusses major issues in—and traces the history of—reform in college athletics.

Echoing the sentiments of previous speakers such as Michael Oriard, Smith suggested that if he was to institute one reform he’d eliminate freshman eligibility. Smith noted this rule existed for six decades through the 1960s and could only stand to improve current student athlete experiences. Preventing freshmen from playing would allow those student athletes to be more involved with school before facing the rigors of a life dominated by college athletics.

Smith also suggested that the NCAA has not been at the center of major reform efforts. Instead, laws and court cases have made the biggest impact on college athletics. Citing integration and women’s equality as the two greatest reforms, Smith pointed to Brown v. Board of Education, Civil Rights Acts and Title IX as the greatest vehicles for change. His belief is that significant, future reform will continue to come from outside sources, as the NCAA is not likely to enact considerable changes without outside pressure.

However, were the NCAA to enact more of its own changes, Smith believes that severe penalties would do the most for reform. Smith cited the cases of the Kentucky and Southern Methodist universities, suggesting that dissolving a program—or giving it the “death penalty”—for an extended period of time might do the most for integrity-based reforms.

In the past, most reform has been the result of efforts to level the playing field. Smith believes that in the 21st century major reform efforts will surround issues such as treating athletes as workers, licensing agreements, salary limits for coaches, and academic transparency. Although such efforts to increase academic integrity and promote fair compensation are worthy, Smith doesn’t believe they will be easy to achieve and come by because of the culture of collegiate athletics. Paying athletes, for example, would be an enormous task leading to increased commercialization.

Although reform is a hot topic in collegiate athletics, it may take a lot of pressure from outside sources to make significant changes. Scholars such as Smith continue to dedicate time and effort to discussing issues of academic integrity, fairness, and equality.

Curley Center scholars have focused on athletic reform issues. The Center has partnered with the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics (COIA) on an assessment of faculty involvement in athletic issues at FBS universities. The article will be published in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport this summer.

- Melanie Formentin

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