By andrè douglas pond cummings
West Virginia University College of Law
March Madness has begun. Our nation’s annual college basketball drama—the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship tournament—will undoubtedly bring its usual drama, excitement, glory and ultimate champion. It will also bring another type of madness though, as it constantly reminds us that rampant commercialism and win-at-all-costs attitudes have overtaken college sports.
It begins with the mercenary head coaching carousel. During and after March Madness, NCAA member institutions will court new coaches, despite the fact that those coaches are under contract, in a flurry of activity that leaves college sports fans flummoxed, contracts breached and athletes betrayed.
The coaching carousel revolves furiously in March and April each year for NCAA basketball. A similar phenomenon also exists in December and January for NCAA football teams, as university officials woo big name coaches to their programs through multi-million dollar promises. Fans, sportswriters and pundits cast blame at the feet of greedy superstar head coaches–like Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban, Rick Petino and Richard Rodriguez– who are vilified for lacking loyalty and appreciation, and for pursuing their ego-driven thirst for fame and fortune. Alternatively, some fans, administrators and even governors blame sports agents for the greed that pervades collegiate athletics in connection with the hiring and firing of head coaches. In today’s sports lexicon, legalese like “breach of contract,” “liquidated damages clause,” and “termination provision” are common day discussion points for the average sports fan. Enormous salaries aimed at football and basketball head coaches in collegiate athletics lure prominent coaches to leave very successful programs for even greener pastures.
While ego-driven coaches and aggressive sports agents deserve some blame, other parties are similarly responsible for the perpetuation of this current environment, where coaches make promises one day, and break them the next, leaving aggravation and disappointment in their wake. The administrations at universities across the country, including athletic directors, university presidents and boards of trustees must admit to and accept partial responsibility for what has evolved into a modern day arms race in the new commercialized college athletic scene. When Nick Saban was under contract to the Miami Dolphins, Bobby Petrino was under contract to the Atlanta Falcons, and Richard Rodriguez was under contract to West Virginia University, they were contacted by officials from the University of Alabama, the University of Arkansas and the University of Michigan respectively. Each of these storied university athletic programs reached out to head coaches under contract and effectively induced each of them to breach their contract with their respective institution or club. Each man, Petrino, Saban and Rodriguez, has been excoriated for breaching and leaving, but university officials at Alabama, Arkansas and Michigan have escaped serious discredit or blame. Each university is simply viewed as doing everything in its power to win and provide an environment where continuing winning standards can be maintained.
Remember also that successful coaches, with winning records and clean programs, are routinely terminated by university administrations for failing to win enough or to perform to rigorous standards. The University of Nebraska terminated former head coach Frank Solich after a 9-win-3-loss season. The University of Florida terminated former head coach Ron Zook after a 7-win-4-loss season. Just days ago, Providence terminated head basketball coach Tim Welsh despite his winning record for the past ten seasons, going 160 and 143. Then there’s Ben Braun, a legitimate good guy coach who took over a program under sanctions and ran it successfully, but was canned by the University of California for not winning enough.
When did it become acceptable in collegiate athletics to terminate coaches that measure their collective success by graduation rates, team grade point averages and whether their athletes are enriched by their college experience?
Forgotten amidst this new era of commercialization, burgeoning athletic budgets, insatiable alumni appetites for championships and the increasingly predatory nature of head coaching, are the student athletes. Often betrayed by head coaches’ promises, collegiate athletes are left to play for a coach they did not sign-up to play for. Current NCAA rules punish athletes who try to leave a university by mandating that the athlete sit out one full season after transferring, even if a head coach has left them high and dry. In addition, while new head coaches now sign multi-million dollar pacts and assistant coaches now approach one million per year in salary, the college athletes still must make due with a tuition waiver and a small living stipend.
When a college head coach is paid significantly more than the university president; when governors and legislatures become intimately involved in the hiring process of a head coach at one of the state’s public institutions; when television rights for NCAA football and basketball championships are negotiated in the billions of dollars; and when a single donor pledges over $150 million to a state school’s athletic program (not academic mission), then we have a commercialization problem. This reality was not created overnight. Resolving the attendant problems will not be easy. But these issues must be addressed forthrightly and with concern, for the student athlete and for the academic missions of NCAA member schools.
andrè douglas pond cummings is an associate professor of law at the West Virginia University College of Law. He worked as an NFL certified sports agent for several years before entering academia.