Today’s guest columnist is Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical professor at Arizona State.
Hey, NCAA—want to get Congress to take more action on college sports? Go bigger. Become a leader in the redesign of Olympic sport and American sport in the United States.
You have built the premier Olympic sports development infrastructure in the world, and you deserve credit for that. But the NCAA’s declared transformation isn’t about saving something that you claim as yours; it’s about embracing the mission of higher education to serve young people and the country, and it’s about helping the sports—not football and basketball, but soccer, tennis, track and field, swimming—that need you. Embrace what you never have been, but could be: A federated sport-by-sport organization working alongside the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and each sport’s national governing body to better serve athletes and bring coherence and consistency to each sport.
Yes, there are risks. Taking on a leadership role in redesigning American sport could result in a loss of power. Admitting that you are but only one stakeholder in a much broader elite U-23 sports ecosystem in the United States—one also long overdue for innovative redesign—means giving up power and control, or (gasp!) even ending the NCAA as we know it. The National Governing Bodies (NGBs) could run collegiate championships and provide collegiate governance.
Change is coming to the business model and labor dynamics of big-time college football, at least at the top 131 FBS schools. Whether it’s initiated by the courts, Congress or the schools themselves, we are going to see more college football money going to the athletes in the not-so-distant future. This is a good thing. And trying to stop it from happening is missing your greater opportunity.
But this is also an opportunity to rewrite your narrative arc and transform from villain into hero.
Pursuing an antitrust exemption to obtain a national standard for NIL and ensure athletes are not classified as employees reveals that the “transformation” you seek is no transformation at all. A skeptic could see your modernization effort of the past couple years is just a delay tactic to waste time. You hope no one will notice that the Congressional intervention you now desire is the opposite of change and aims to protect what already had been (and what you originally had admitted needed fixing).
Your college sports reform adversaries have not accounted for the complexities of the full ecosystem of college sports, either. Olympic development in the U.S. has largely been subsidized by American universities. Aspiring Olympians need to fund their travel and training, and compete against other Olympic hopefuls, and good Olympic development casts a wide net with many more athletes in the pool than eventual Olympians. American college teams have long served these functions, but without much intentionality or clear planning, and certainly without coordination with the USOPC.
While fixing labor dynamics in football and basketball means more money will go to players, it also means less money will be transferred over to subsidize Olympic sports. So, what becomes of Olympic development when the transfer payments from football to the other college sports suddenly stop? Is anyone running economic models, or looking for new revenue streams? No one talking about economic justice for football and basketball athletes has a plan for Olympic sport development because most reformers and disruptors are not thinking about it at all.
With the future of American college sports, and, moreover, the business model of American college football—a main source of subsidization of Olympic sports in colleges—up in the air, it has become especially crucial—dire!—for U.S. sports institutions to get to work on alternative models of funding Olympic development through American colleges.
The rest of the world has public funding of Olympic development, including, for example, the United Kingdom, where a tax on the national lottery provides the money. Plus, the supposed American hardline commitment to private funding isn’t really true when we think about all the pots of public funds (primarily federal student loans and local-, state- and federal-supported sport facility capital improvement projects) subsidizing college sports and the vital role colleges play in Olympic development.
Congress, NCAA, USOPC: Here is my moonshot. One new revenue stream to consider is a federal tax on sports betting to support Olympic development, with the federal funds running through universities to subsidize college sports teams.
Regardless of how we feel about sports gambling, it is here to stay in the United States. The Cold War commitment to private funding of Olympic development in the U.S. is long overdue for abandonment and a federal tax on sports betting would release Olympic sports from some dependency on college football money. And, considering the ethical challenges of sports betting, it would offer at least one positive outcome of a potentially problematic industry. It also doesn’t hurt that sports betting is new, so introducing a tax on a new thing isn’t as earth shattering.
NCAA leaders, it’s time to stop playing whack-a-mole and time to get to work on actual, coordinated, optimized redesign. For too long the approach to change in the American sports ecosystem has been individual stakeholders pursuing their best interests, often with a focus on single issues, and a patchwork of steps forward, steps back, and obvious—though unfortunately unanticipated—negative consequences.
You have eager allies and teammates ready and waiting. The Olympic Movement in the United States is at a crossroads, and USOPC leaders and Congress are already at work on Olympic Movement redesign. The Commission on the State of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, a product of the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act, after two years of procedural steps, is now funded and green-lighted to get to work. Rocky Harris, one of the sharpest thinkers across Olympic, collegiate and professional sports in the U.S., is now chief of sport and athlete services, a new role at the USOPC that makes Harris the point person between the USOPC, NGBs and colleges, all with serving athletes as his North Star.
The ball is in your court, NCAA, to admit that college sports redesign must be part of a broader American Olympic sport redesign if the goal is to optimize all the parts of the college sports ecosystem to best serve all athletes. Show us you will embrace transformation after all, and that American higher education remains a noble enterprise.
Victoria Jackson is a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University. She is a former NCAA champion and retired professional track and field athlete.