By Robert A. Vella

Everyone understands the nature of professional sports.  They are privately owned and operated businesses for profit which pay their players in more or less a competitive, free market system.  College sports, conversely, is completely different.  The individual universities and colleges which participate in these sporting events, under an umbrella of various administrative organizations, are mostly public institutions which receive both federal and state education funding (note:  some private schools also received public education funds).  Public financing comes with many conditions designed to ensure that taxpayer funds are used for its intended purpose – to further student education.  These conditions prohibit public funds from being involved with for-profit enterprises.  Therefore, the schools and their sports organizations hold a special status by government;  and, amateur athletes cannot receive compensation like professionals.

However, college sports – particularly football and basketball – are extremely popular and generate billions of dollars in revenue each year.  The media companies which broadcast the events profit from it mightily, as do commercial interests such as shoe and apparel businesses;  and, the schools themselves increasingly depend on it to pay their operating expenses.  Left out of the mix, student-athletes often struggle financially to stay in school.  This arrangement is grossly unfair.

Because so much money is involved, and because prized amateur athletes benefit their schools and the commercial interests looking to sign them to lucrative contracts when they turn professional, corruption within the system is both inevitable and growing worse every year.  Legally, companies like Nike and Adidas can supply athletic equipment to college and university sports programs, but they cannot give money or other compensation to anyone inside those schools – particularly, to the student-athletes.

The administrative organization most responsible for ensuring that college sports operates within the rules is the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  The NCAA has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for ineptness and conflicts of interest.  Its failings have prompted a 3 year-long FBI criminal investigation which will now be prosecuted by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Why is this story important?  Because it not only highlights the corrupting influence of money in America’s social institutions, it also threatens to undermine or forever change the huge industry of college sports.  What eventually results from these proceedings is open to speculation.  Will it become more like professional sports where the athletes are paid?  Will negligent colleges and universities lose their cash cow and fall from national prominence?  Will public funding for higher education become even more problematic?  What will happen to many disadvantaged young people seeking to lift themselves and their families out of poverty?

One thing is certain.  The problem of corruption in college sports has exceeded an irreversible threshold.  The Feds are now involved.  This story will not simply fade away as so many have before it.  Stay tuned.

Further reading:

NCAA basketball coaches among 10 charged with fraud, corruption

Entire Notion of NCAA ‘Amateurism’ May Be on the Line in FBI’s Corruption Case

Louisville’s Rick Pitino Put on Leave in Wake of NCAA Bribe Scandal