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Dateline: ATHENS, Ohio
The search for answers regarding the future of big-money college athletics is causing one critic to head overseas.
Dr. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, leaves today for Germany, where he'll spend the next year studying the European sports system and how it differs from a college model unique to the U.S.
Ridpath will teach at the University of Bayreuth in Germany for 14 months, with that school providing him grant money to conduct a research project into how European sports governing bodies funnel college-aged athletes through a system not tied to education.
"Why do we have athletics attached to the educational system in America, specifically at colleges and universities?" said Ridpath, a former Ohio assistant wrestling coach. "The European club system is actually a great developmental system for their professional leagues and Olympics.
"With the inevitable changes that are coming to college athletics, is there another potential way to have developmental athletics in America that either complements some of the intercollegiate athletic system or takes it over completely?"
Ridpath spent 11 years as an athletic department administrator at Weber State and Marshall, then directed the graduate sports administration program at Mississippi State for two years before taking his teaching position at Ohio in 2006.
The past decade has seen Ridpath rise among the ranks of critics of the NCAA, a tax-free nonprofit organization that reported a nearly $61 million surplus for its 2013 fiscal year.
Ridpath, 49, has testified before Congress and written editorials, academic papers and book chapters about the perceived ills of college sports. He's president-elect of the Drake Group, a national association of university faculty members.
Ridpath has detractors because he's outspoken about a college athletic system straining to restructure its governance model while under siege from litigation and the possible unionization of student-athletes. Ridpath, however, hopes that his year in Europe produces possible solutions for the complaints.
"This is my premise: I think there are many ways to do it, but what we're doing now, specifically in college, is not working," he said. "I think we need more options in America."
College athletics is at a crossroads at a time when a contract to broadcast the new College Football Playoff reportedly is worth $7.3 billion over 12 years and an NCAA basketball tournament TV deal is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.
Such deals don't exist in Europe, where athletic scholarships are rare and professional sports clubs, not universities, are viewed as the proper outlet for the talented athletes of college age.
"Higher education in the United States is the only (educational) system in the world that has assumed the responsibility of entertaining the public," said Richard Davies, who has written books and taught classes about American sports history at the University of Nevada.
Davies, a Camden, Ohio, native, said that the American system sprang from the rise of college football in the late 1800s when "Europeans had their club sports already established outside the university."
With the American higher-education system in its infancy, commerce took quick root when huge crowds at football games caught the attention of school presidents.
"By 1900, the universities had taken over the sport," Davies said. "It became a very important public-relations tool. It was the one way that universities could reach out to their alumni and get them to connect with the university after they had graduated, and, of course, to raise money through the alumni."
The Roaring '20s saw a national rise in the construction of huge college football stadiums such as Ohio Stadium, which opened on Ohio State's campus in 1922.
"As soon as these things were built, they had to maintain them and they had to fill the seats," Davies said. "So winning became more and more important."
Debate about sport's proper place in higher education has forever followed, with current predictions of unknown major changes forthcoming.
"The implosion is going to happen," Ridpath said.
So he's off to Europe to seek possible model solutions that he hopes to present in conferences and possibly someday offer in book form.
"My views have evolved," Ridpath said. "I wasn't going to consider anything else other than the complete academic model. Now I'm wide open to anything, as long as we're not doing what we're doing now."
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June 3, 2014