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Volume 20 No. 41
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Tagliabue: College model requires new thinking

Paul Tagliabue crossed his arms in the air, forming an X that he said represents a looming crossroads for college athletics.

Down one path is a chasm between athletics and academics that threatens the existing college sports model. Down a separate path, the former NFL commissioner said, is the kind of reform that could make the academic side relevant again, something he’d like to see.

Tagliabue wants economic changes that reward athletes’ academic achievements.
Tagliabue, a former Georgetown University basketball player who last year joined the Knight Commission, made it clear that he’s not in favor of paying athletes like employees. But at a recent conference in New York, where he spoke to hundreds of stakeholders in college athletics, Tagliabue strongly advocated for new thinking that would shift financial rewards to athletes who perform in the classroom.

“You have to be willing to think about the previously unthinkable,” he said last month at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum.

During an interview with SBJ Executive Editor Abe Madkour, Tagliabue likened the rapid escalation of revenue and expenses in college athletics to the increases in the NFL and NBA decades ago. Tagliabue cited Knight Commission data that showed revenue among power five conferences has shot from $570 million to $3 billion in a 15-year span.

“When you have that kind of change in the economics, history tells us you have to rethink the athlete experience,” he said. “That’s what happened in the NBA and the NFL. For decades in professional sports we said we can’t have free agency because it will destroy the game and the competitive balance. We can’t have a salary cap. Well, guess what? We have all of those things and the leagues are prospering better than ever. But for a long time, those things were out of the box; you couldn’t even think about it.

“College sports is in a similar situation. The scholarship model has been in place for a long time and it’s been terrific. But you’ve got to start talking out of the box about the incremental dollars and how they should be divided up among the various schools.

“It’s a big, big challenge.”

The NCAA already moved to redistribute TV revenue to schools that perform the best in the classroom, after years of paying schools and conferences based on how many games they win in the tournament. That new formula will go into effect in 2019-20.

Tagliabue also brought suggestions that would put more of a focus on academics.

For starters, he’d create academic achievement awards. Money would be set aside for athletes, perhaps those in men’s basketball and football, to reward them for progressing toward a degree or graduating.

“If someone graduates in four years with a bona fide degree, give that athlete a $75,000 bonus,” Tagliabue said. “It’s a way to help the athlete understand that if they study, they’ll be equipped for life.

“It’s one thing to give the schools revenue, but it’s another to incentivize the athletes with some kind of bonus. It’s an award. Money drives everything else in the business; why not incentivize athletes with awards for academic performance? They are, after all, universities and the mission is academics. Is there a better idea? Probably, but that’s the kind of idea I’m talking about.”

Tagliabue also challenged the necessity of playing so many games, especially in college basketball where Final Four teams can play up to 40 games.

Those games represent valuable content for networks like ESPN and Fox that are deeply invested in college athletics, but is that kind of schedule really in the athletes’ best interests, he asked. And if the schools and conferences aren’t willing to walk back from the revenue those games provide, Tagliabue said scholarships should be extended to six years.

“Let them play four years and give them two more years of academic support, provided that they’ve been performing academically,” he said. “That gives them the opportunity to go to school for two years without the burden of having to go to practice. One thing we know about athletes is that they’re highly motivated. Incentivize them and they’ll perform.”

Some conferences have moved in that direction already by guaranteeing the scholarship for four years and under certain circumstances longer. It’s part of an effort by the higher-resource schools to provide more student-athlete benefits.

These types of benefits help tie the academic side with the athletic side.

At Tagliabue’s school, Georgetown, where he has served on the board of directors since 2006, athletics brings in $20 million in revenue and spends $40 million.

“We subsidize 50 cents of every dollar we spend,” he said. “That’s not a sustainable model as expenses grow — they are growing for psychological counseling, coaches’ salaries, health and safety, and that doesn’t even include facilities.

“If you don’t do something dramatic to push sports back together with academics, the trend will continue in a way that’s not positive. … If you don’t do your own big thinking, somebody is going to do it for you.”