The Shaky Future of College Athletics

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Litigation “stacked up like planes at LaGuardia” threatens to change the relationship between athlete and university that has always defined college sports, but Jack Swarbrick ’76 sounded pretty serene about the whole thing.

Whatever tectonic shifts confront college sports in the foreseeable future, the Notre Dame athletic director seemed confident in his footing last week in his interview for the Alumni Association’s On Point at Notre Dame online learning series.

Conference realignment already generated some seismic activity, but in 2013 Notre Dame landed safely in the ACC with its football independence intact. Long-term media deals herald a stable status quo on that front.

New tremors, still in the distance, emanate mostly from courtrooms. Are athletes employees, entitled to wages and worker’s comp for their labor? May they profit from the use of their name and likeness? Universities and the NCAA have always said no, but with judges entertaining the questions, the answer ultimately may be out of their hands.

Legal resolution will be slow, but Swarbrick and Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, ’76 have said that if the courts ultimately classify athletes as university employees, Notre Dame will not be hiring. Sports attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed the suit most relevant to that issue, arguing that universities restricting athletes’ compensation to the value of a scholarship violates antitrust laws. Kessler represents former Clemson Tigers cornerback Martin Jenkins and others seeking an open market for their services.

Kessler’s goal is a free market where players negotiate for their share of athletic revenue. That, Father Jenkins told The New York Times in September, would be “Armageddon” and Notre Dame would not participate. That is, the Fighting Irish conceivably could opt out of big-time college sports and relegate itself to a lower tier with other schools that consider paying players a plane they will not break. It’s hard to imagine.

Swarbrick envisions no such doomsday. Even in a system where some schools paid their players and others like Notre Dame did not, he’s sanguine about the Fighting Irish retaining their high-profile place. Such a stance, he said, would not compromise Notre Dame’s competitive potential any more than its high academic standards do now.

“I’m not worried at all with the consequence of a bifurcated system like that,” he said. “Because we talk a lot to our peers in the industry and [it’s] very clear to us that most of the schools with which we view ourselves in common — most of the schools with whom we play on a regular basis — would, like us, opt for the model that continued to preserve the athlete-as-student relationship. So I don’t think you’d see much change.”

The “athlete-as-student” idea defines Notre Dame’s hard and fast position against issuing paychecks to players. That prohibition does not necessarily extend to other forms of player compensation currently forbidden by legally challenged NCAA rules — from selling autographs, say, or receiving a cut of jersey sales with their name and number on them.

College athletic officials tend to treat those notions as cracks in the foundation of amateurism that threaten the entire structure, so it’s noteworthy when leaders like Swarbrick and Jenkins express an openness. It may be the compromise that supports the edifice: continued access to education for every scholarship athlete, plus the right to additional compensation for players whose talent helps generate so much revenue.

Swarbrick made the comparison to a student musician who earns money performing. Why, he wondered, can’t an athlete have the same right, subject to restrictions necessary to maintain competitive balance? For him, where to the draw the line comes down to this fundamental principle: “We want the experience of students who participate in athletics to be as similar to the experience of every other student as possible.”

That’s why he’s glad courts struck down an NCAA rule against providing “cost-of-attendance” stipends to athletes. Such stipends cover costs above the tuition, room and board of a typical scholarship, like transportation to and from school. Students with other types of grants-in-aid have long received that additional support, so why not athletes? Now they do.

Swarbrick also supports the awarding of academic credit to scholarship athletes for their participation, which he said some schools already do. How best to institute a new policy and how much credit to offer remain open questions, but in theory the concept aligns with Notre Dame’s view of athletics — that coaches are educators first and that participation is integral to the academic experience.

As for paid employment, he’s convinced that what Notre Dame offers student-athletes — the combination of athletics, academics and campus life — will always be compensation enough, even if the courts let competitors put money on the table. Not that he expects that particular scenario, among so many hazy hypotheticals, to come true.

“Where we’re headed, no one knows exactly,” Swarbrick said, but he conveyed an assurance that whatever shocks college sports have coming, Notre Dame’s standing will be secure.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.