As I write, the NCAA basketball championship game is upon us, and there is no bigger spectacle in college athletics than the Final Four. And I’m a big fan, but I continue to worry about the imbalances in the way we measure and reward success for these young athletes and the schools they represent. I have mentioned on several occasions the report of the Knight Commission which highlights these imbalanced priorities and I wonder who is paying attention to the perverse incentives that are being cultivated and the resulting corruption of the mission of higher education. On the eve of Final Four weekend Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a compelling op/ed in which he reminds us of the Commission’s analysis which shows a revenue formula badly skewed to reward success on the court despite a total absence of success off the court by players at many participating schools in terms of progress toward graduation. In fact, over the past five tournaments, 44% of the total payout of more than $400 million went to teams that were not on track to graduate at least half of their players!
Several schools have good records in this regard, and the women’s programs have much better records than the men’s programs even on the same campuses. For example, the Connecticut women’s team has a graduation rate of over 90% vs. the men’s average of 50% and only 25% for its black players. Need I add the obvious conclusion that the difference is almost surely the fact that the men’s game has been more corrupted by the monetary incentives of the professional leagues?
It has been suggested to me that these imbalances as well as those that plague college football can only be cured when we find a way to alter human nature. Well, maybe so, but I have a few suggestions to change the incentive structure: One is to change the weighting of the criteria in the revenue distribution formula to reward schools that have an acceptable percentage of their players on track to graduate; two is to disqualify from the playoffs those teams that do not have a three-year trailing percentage of on-track players of at least 50% or maybe higher; and three, which applies to football as well, is to adopt the same recruiting rules as with college baseball, which provide that once a recruit signs to attend and play for a school, he isn’t eligible for the professional draft until age 21 or completion of eligibility. There are other changes I would make as well, such as requiring that the NFL and NBA reimburse the colleges for the total cost of the scholarships for players drafted each year on the grounds that they now are providing a cost-free farm system for the professional leagues. And there is one change I wouldn’t make, which is to compensate the college players, but these are debates for another day.
I am resigned to the reality that we will never achieve the purity of the student-athlete myth in the major sports in the top division of intercollegiate athletics except in the rarest of cases, but we must halt this slide toward the corruption of the mission of higher education that is manifest in the perverse incentive system in college athletics.