A Billion-Dollar Amateur Show

Knight Commission Executive Director Amy Perko is quoted in the Washington Post‘s April 3 article, “NCAA stages its gaudiest spectacle, while its amateur foundation is under question.”

The article summarizes the recent debate over whether athletes should receive more benefits and whether they should be represented by a players’ union.

“What impact, if any, one football team’s decision to unionize might have is far from clear. But Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, calls it ‘a potential watershed moment.’

For more than 20 years, the Knight Commission has urged university presidents and the NCAA to rein in the commercial excesses of college sports and treat athletes as students first rather than professionals. That call has largely been ignored.

As a result, big-time college sports run the risk of collapsing under their own hypocrisy or having their business model dictated by the courts, labor unions or Congress.

‘As we have said all along, university presidents and [NCAA] leaders really can chart the course if they want to do so,’ Perko said. ‘But ultimately it might be a case of too little too late.'”

The article runs through the revenues being generated by college sports and the many questions surfacing with the recent challenge by Northwestern football players to be represented by a union:

“As the Northwestern players took their case to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Warren Zola, an attorney who teaches sports law at Boston College, cautions that the notion of unionizing is fraught with unknowns. With whom would players be bargaining? Their university? Their conference? The NCAA?

‘There are a lot of unresolved questions,’ Zola said. ‘I think lost in the shuffle of all the debate over the past several years is the disconnect between athletes and education. People should be spending as much time on the questions of ‘Are we educating athletes? What are their graduation rates?’ as they are ‘Is this a commercial enterprise?’

‘Are people thinking about classes that are missed to produce these tournaments, with athletes going from conference tournaments to the NCAA tournaments?’

That, in essence, is the chief concern of the Knight Commission, which opposes the idea of unionizing, arguing there are myriad steps college presidents and the NCAA can and should take to treat athletes like students rather than cogs in a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise.

‘If we continue to prioritize winning TV market share and other entertainment objectives over education,” Perko said, “then we have lost our way forever.'”