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Big Bucks Compromising Athletes' Education?

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Still to come, we wrap up our aging and end-of-life series with a discussion with that group of seniors we met earlier in the week. We get their take on the role of faith in their lives. But first, we're returning to two topics we care about: sports and education. They're intertwined, for good or ill. Think about it. Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of fans will pack college football stadiums around the country. Millions more will be watching on TV. The television contracts for college football are valued in the billions of dollars.

But many people are starting to question the affect of all that money tied up in college sports, as well as the affect of that on the athletes. The issue has become one of the central concerns of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. That's an independent group comprised of individuals drawn from the academy, athletics and journalism who function as, essentially, a watch dog group around issues in college sports.

The commission is meeting on Monday with the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. That's the governing body for collegiate sports. We hope to speak with an official from that group after the meeting. But joining me now is Brit Kirwan. He is currently serving as the co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. He's also the chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Chancellor Kirwan, thanks so much for joining us.

BRIT KIRWAN: My pleasure. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, you're meeting with the head of the NCAA on Monday. Can you give a sense of what you plan to tell him?

KIRWAN: Well, I think it's going to be a two-way conversation, because we've issued this report last year on our grave concerns regarding the trajectory of expenditures in intercollegiate athletics and urged the NCAA to take action on a number of our recommendations. And so we'll be eager to hear from him about his thoughts on the report, its current review by the NCAA and where they might be headed on responding to the report, and to the other issues regarding the financing of intercollegiate athletics that have emerged over the past 12 months.

MARTIN: And just - for those who aren't as familiar with the work as you are, how does the money generated by college sports affect athletes' ability to get an education in your view? Because the traditional way that this has been thought of - at least that - the argument that's made is that the athletes are trading something of value, which is their time and their skill and their talent, in exchange for something of value, which is an education. And I think a lot of people are now criticizing that and saying that that's not actually true.

So how do you think it works? So that how does the money affect these athletes' ability to get an education?

KIRWAN: Right. Well, neither the Knight Commission nor I are, in any way, attacking the concept of intercollegiate athletics. I myself - many, many years ago - was a student-athlete. And I think intercollegiate athletics has a great place in the academic environment - an important place, let me say, in the academic environment.

But what has happened over the last several decades is that because of the enormous infusion of revenue that - made possible by these large television contracts and other efforts to commercialize intercollegiate athletics - I think higher education has lost its way a bit. And all of these activities are compromising, in my opinion, the integrity of our institutions. And basically, we have a tail wagging the dog now, and that's our grave concern. It's certainly my concern and, I think, generally speaking, the concern of the Knight Commission.

MARTIN: Well, we're not really talking about all sports, though, are we? We're not talking about Greco-Roman wrestling. We're not talking about swimming, for the most part - although we could be, because swimming is a very consuming sport. But mainly, aren't we really talking about football and basketball?

KIRWAN: Yes, football even more so than basketball. One of the troubling features of the current situation is that when it comes to football, nobody's in control. We have the NCAA. We have the president of the NCAA. We have the board of the NCAA setting, in some sense, policies regarding intercollegiate athletics and football in particular. But it's the commissioners of the big conferences that are generating all the revenue through their - the BCS. And so, the bulk of the money that goes into college football is not under the control of the NCAA.

And so you've got this sort of free-for-all going on in the country right now, and I think it's having a very harmful impact on educational institutions. I mean, the thought that with all of the issues we're facing in higher education, you got university presidents sitting around talking about how they can steal an institution from some other conference so they can get a bigger television contract, seems to me such a distorted sense of what university presidents should be spending their time on.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with the head of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Brit Kirwan. He's meeting with the president of the NCAA - that's the governing body for college sports - to talk about his commission's latest findings. Well, could you talk a little bit more, though, about what how the distorting effect works? I mean, the obvious thing that comes to mind is that these so-called student-athletes spend a tremendous amount of time being athletes, and not so much time being students. I mean, that's one obvious concern that people have. Well - talk a little bit more about how you think it distorts things.

KIRWAN: Yeah. You know, you started off talking about that the millions of people that would be at college games this weekend. Well, if you turn the clock back 30 or 40 years, there were still millions of people going to college football games. So, I mean, the interest of the public is - hasn't changed all that much. It's still the big window on the university, all of which is good. But what has - what's happened over the last several decades is these television contracts have generated enormous sums of revenue.

So now you have universities - which are not-for-profit organizations - paying coaches $5 million a year. There's no difference between coaches' salaries in intercollegiate athletics and big-time football than in the professional ranks. You have assistant coaches earning $300,000, $400,000 a year in a university setting where professors are earning a $150,000 a year and getting furlough. So there's such a distortion of priorities in the way we are expending these excessive amounts of money in an academic setting on what is an auxiliary enterprise, an extracurricular activity.

And I think here's another troubling aspect of where all of this has gotten to. All of this additional revenue that has been generated over the past several decades hasn't gone back to improve the quality of the academic institutions, or, quite frankly, the lives of the student-athletes. They're still getting the same thing they did several decades ago, a scholarship. Where has this money gone? It has gone to pay coaches' salaries.

They're the beneficiaries. The athletes aren't the beneficiaries of all this money. They, the coaches, are the ones - and the athletic directors and the commissioners - are the ones that are making all the money.

MARTIN: But to that point, though, to that point, one of the recommendations that's gotten a lot of attention previously was that the NCAA is now requiring 50 percent of players be on track for graduation in order for a team to be eligible for post-season play. Well, how does that affect the issues that we're talking about? How does that affect the fact that the coaches are still getting these tremendous salaries, and the assistant coaches, and the students - many of whom come from low income backgrounds - don't have any money?

KIRWAN: Yeah. No, there are lots of issues, here, and that particular recommendation certainly doesn't address the exorbitant revenue generation. But it would at least put more credibility under the mantra that these athletes are students first, that they're student-athletes. So just the simple requirement that they have to have 50 percent graduation rate to be able to participate in the championship is, I think, one small step.

Some of the other recommendations begin to chip away at this revenue generation, because we're calling, first of all, for much more transparency on the revenue generation and expenditure, but also for a much broader revenue distribution formula, so that the money isn't just going to a select, few schools who happen to have a lock on the BCS, but they're distributed - the revenue would be distributed more broadly across the NCAA and be based more on the academic performance of the student-athletes than just on their competitive success.

MARTIN: Well, isn't the elephant in the room, chancellor, the argument that these athletes, these young people are essentially treated like professionals, and they're generating revenue like professionals, but they don't get the benefit of it, except in an education that they can actually barely, really, participate in because they're either on the road or practicing or doing whatever it is that they have to do to remain competitive athletically? The elephant in the room for a lot of people is: Why aren't they just getting paid?

KIRWAN: Yes. And, you know, I can certainly understand that argument. I don't think that point would be - have such force if there was a more balanced salary structure with regard to the coach. It's the fact that the revenue is so high and the disparity between the increase in pay to coaches versus the increase in the circumstances for the student-athlete.

Now, I'm old-fashioned, so I will always believe that this should be an amateur experience, that these should - these student-athletes really should be students. And, you know, to be fair, the graduation rates have risen. It's not like none of these athletes are getting a college degree, which has enormous value over the course of their lifetimes. So, you know, there are elements of the intercollegiate athletic enterprise that still have value and merit. I think it's the just exorbitant expenditures on coaches and facilities and salaries for commissioners that have distorted this picture so badly.

MARTIN: Let me press this question one more time, if I may, and that is - particularly in regard to the football question. This is a sport where people get injured. This is a sport where someone's entire life can be changed by a hard hit in one game. How do you explain to these young men who are putting their bodies on the line, in which their institutions are making millions, as we've discussed, from the sacrifice of their bodies, if you will, and that they can't go out for a pizza. How do you explain that?

KIRWAN: I don't think you can. So I think they absolutely ought to - you know, there ought to be disability insurance. There ought to be some form of protection for student-athletes that get injured playing football. I mean, in a way, that's my point. We're spending all this revenue on the personnel, the coaches, the staff, the commissioners, and not enough of it is going to improve the quality of life for the student-athletes.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with the head of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Brit Kirwan. He's meeting with the president of the NCAA on Monday to talk about his commission's latest findings. He's also the chancellor of the university system of Maryland, and he was kind enough to join us from his office.

Mr. Chancellor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KIRWAN: Enjoyed the conversation. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.