Looking Back to 1989: Future Games | Athletic Business

Looking Back to 1989: Future Games

A March court ruling granting football players at Northwestern University the right to unionize has left everyone speculating about the future of the NCAA, but such speculation has been floating around longer than most of today’s college athletes have been alive. Check out the predictions about the NCAA’s future set forth in this AB article from December 1989.


Under continuing financial pressures and clamor for reform, major college sports could look considerably different by the time the 21st century dawns.
By Rick Berg

Sweeping change may be looming in major college sports in the next decade, but no one yet seems sure of where it’s all heading. In no particular order, here are a few of the of the suggestions, all of them highly speculative or even fanciful:

A group of 30 to 40 major colleges will form a “super league” consisting of the top football powers—those prepared to commit the resources necessary to compete for the national championship.

This idea has been tossed around by numerous people for years and may be more likely today than ever, but traditional conference relationships still pose a major obstacle.

The major colleges will decide that there are substantial differences between “entertainment sports” like football and men’s basketball (baseball, hockey, women’s basketball or women’s volleyball might also fit the criteria at some schools) and sports that are of more interest to the participants than the public. Given those differences, the “entertainment sports” will be moved to the universities’ public relations department, while the “education sports” will be moved to the physical education departments.

This somewhat fanciful idea is that of Frank Remington, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, long-time faculty athletics representative and former chairman of the NCAA Infractions Committee. While the likelihood of its adoption may be slim, Remington’s central point is that it makes little sense to treat all college sports alike.

Major college football and basketball programs will be run as semi-professional teams—for-profit enterprises separate from the universities.

An intriguing (if somewhat radical) idea, this type of proposal has also been kicked around in various forms for years, most recently by Sports Illustrated writer Rick Telander in his new book, The Hundred Yard Lie, parts of which were reprinted in the Oct. 2 issue of SI.

Adoption of the semipro idea also seems unlikely, but it does address the troublesome “hypocrisy” issue by separating the entertainment value of sports from the educational function of the universities.

Given the differences between the major spectator sports and the non-revenue sports (Olympic sports, minor sports, lifetime sports or participant sports), colleges will treat them differently within the athletic department framework.

Specifically, since the major sports generate revenue and public exposure for the university, and since there is public demand for quality competition in those sports, they will be allowed to provide athletic grants-in-aid, as well as stipends for athletes. Other sports will be allowed to offer only the same need-based financial aid that is available to non-athletes.

Football and basketball players are already treated differently than other athletes, but this approach may be too direct for some people’s liking.

Sports will be de-emphasized at all major universities, with recruiting and athletic grants-in-aid abolished, and practice time and playing seasons severely restricted.

This is not out of the question. The Ivy League schools long ago de-emphasized sports, and their programs continue to enjoy an avid following. As a model for all of college sports, however, the Ivy example seems unlikely to find widespread support among institutions or the public.

The Search for answers and solutions centers on two issues:

A large number of people believe that sports (read: football and men’s basketball) are overemphasized at the major college level, and that the overemphasis detracts from the education mission of the universities and leads to corruption, which tarnishes the image of the institutions.

In addition, many college athletic programs struggle to balance participation opportunities with economic demands.

Football and basketball, by and large, enjoy wide public (and usually financial) support, but the ethos of college sports over the last two decades or so has come to dictate that all students should have an opportunity to participate in varsity sports, whether their sport of choice holds any significant interest for the for the public or not. These sports cost money to operate, however, especially if an institution awards grants-in-aid for talented athletes, and the ability of the revenue-generating sports to provide the necessary funds is being strained on many campuses. 

What’s needed, apparently, is a model that will accommodate all the concerns—one that will protect the integrity of the university, ensure sports participation opportunities for all students and not drive athletic departments into insolvency—an imposing challenge. 

On the cost side, providing grants-in-aid seems a good place to start looking for reductions. College Board statistics show that the average cost of attending a public four-year college this year is $6,671. At that rate, the NCAA-maximum 11 “full ride” scholarships for a soccer team would cost an athletic department $73,381. At a private school, where the average college cost is $14,326, a soccer team would cost $157,586 for scholarships alone.

By comparison, a football team, with the NCAA-maximum 95 scholarships, would cost $633,745 in grants-in-aid at the average public institution and more than $1.3 million at the average private college, but the football team is more likely to generate enough revenue to cover those costs than is a soccer team.  

The issue is not purely one of economics, of course, but the question must be asked: To what extent can college athletic departments continue to subsidize non-need-based financial aid, and for what purpose?

Because of the popular sentiment that all athletes deserve to be treated equally, many people are uncomfortable with the notion of “major” and “minor” sports. Nonetheless, in terms of public interest and financial support, those distinctions do exist. 

“There has been an unwillingness to face the inequality head-on,” says Remington, who proposes what he calls “controlled cost competition” in many sports. Schools in a conference, for example, could agree to conduct conference championships in several limited aid/limited recruiting sports. Schools that want to compete nationally in a given sport could opt out of the conference championships in that sport. Remington actually had broad support for such a proposal in the Big Ten in the late 1970s, but the plan never materialized. 

Nonetheless, it seems clear that some limitations on financial aid will be instituted in Division I. 

“The day of the free ride is over,” says Fred Miller, athletic director at San Diego State. “The idea that everyone has to be fully funded—we can’t afford that anymore.”

However, any proposal to limit financial aid will have to take into account Title IX, and provide a representative number of athletic grants-in-aid for women, relative to the number provided for men.

As for the overemphasis angle, Dick DeVenzio thinks concerns about amateurism and educational integrity are so much hogwash.

“People need to quit acting like a university is a little New England boys’ school,” says DeVenzio, a former Duke University basketball player and self-appointed lobbyist for college athletes’ rights. “They talk about not wanting to become a semi-pro league for the pros, but they already are.”

DeVenzio, who heads an organization he calls the Revenue Producing Major College Players Association, argues for “deregulating the system” to allow athletes in the major sports to share in the revenue. Specifically, he thinks athletes deserve spending money, scholarships for as long as it takes them to graduate and insurance, among other things. He also calls for “total deregulation, permitting athletes receive any money freely offered.”

Since the colleges themselves benefit from the revenue generated by football and basketball, “ I don’t know how they’re comfortable with this business of regulating economic opportunity for the athletes,” says DeVenzio, who tried to make that point in 1986 by persuading Oklahoma and Nebraska football players to stage a pregame delay as a protest. Five players from each team did meet at midfield, join hands and kneel for a few moments.

DeVenzio hopes to make more of a mark by persuading players from both teams to “disrupt” the Rose Bowl next month. He doesn’t now how successful he’ll be, but he’s encouraged that a number of coaches have expressed support for athletes’ right to more benefits.

For many higher education officials, however, the overemphasis issue is not a trivial one. The NCAA Presidents Commission, has been studying possible reforms, and now a private commission, headed by former Notre Dame President Theodore M. Hesburgh and funded by the Knight Foundation, is doing the same. At the bottom of their dilemma is the basic question: What do multimillion-dollar entertainment sports and higher education have to with one another? That question has been asked, in one form or another, at least since the Carnegie Foundation Report in 1929, so far without much of an answer. 

Going (not too far) out on a limb, a few modest predictions:

More schools and conferences will follow the Ivy League example of limiting financial aid and encouraging broad-based participation in a large number of sports. One of the most recent examples is the Colonial League, a diverse collection of independents and schools from other conferences, which began football competition in 1986 and will sponsor 22 sports in 1990. 

•Schools will emphasize certain sports, while de-emphasizing others, perhaps choosing which to be nationally competitive in only one or two. As this happens, traditional conference ties may begin to break down as schools form coalitions with others emphasizing the same sport or sports. (This already occurs, for example, in hockey, which tends to have weak conference sponsorship.) A school may belong to several different “conferences,” reflecting the competitive levels of the various sports the school sponsors.

•There will be movement toward shifting some varsity sports to club sports, which will be housed in the college intramural/recreation departments. While this may lower the prestige of those sports somewhat, it will increase participation, strengthen student support and augment the role of recreation professionals on campus.

•At the NCAA level, members will grudgingly reach agreements on financial aid limitations. “Full ride” grants-in-aid will be reduced across the board, though most of the reductions will take place in the non-income sports. Full grants-in-aid will be continued for women’s sports, roughly proportional to their participation. In other sports, athletes will receive partial or need-based aid.

•Reaching consensus on cost management strategies and competitive philosophies won’t come easy. As a result, there will be even more segmentation of college athletics into splinter groups as institutional leaders determine the role athletics should play on their campuses.

“Each institution needs to evaluate that,” says Jack Lengyel, athletic director at the U.S. Naval Academy and president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. “Then give the athletic director a blueprint that’s realistic and that everyone can support.”


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