Archived Information

Time to Bring Your "A" Game—in Academics and Athletics

Remarks of Secretary Arne Duncan to the NCAA Convention

Contact:  
(202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


It is great to be back at the NCAA convention.

A few months ago, President Emmert said that 2011 was the best of times and the worst of times for college sports.

It was the best of times because college sports have never been as popular or as visible. It was the best of times because graduation rates for student athletes reached new highs, and continued to surpass the graduation rate of their peers.

And it was the best of times because college presidents took major steps to reduce academic abuses in Division I that have allowed rogue programs and coaches to taint the tremendous record of success in college sports for too long.

I can't thank the Division One college and university presidents enough for your decision to raise the academic benchmarks that teams will have to meet to compete in the post-season. In a few short years, teams will have to be on track to graduating at least half of their players to be eligible for post-season play, whether they compete in the NCAA basketball tournament or the BCS football bowl games.

As I'll talk about in a minute, raising the bar for postseason eligibility was a sea-change in policy, though a surprising number of sportswriters failed to catch its significance. And thanks to your collective commitment and leadership, the NCAA approved this unprecedented increase in post-season eligibility standards with record speed.

Yet, it's no secret why 2011 was also the worst of times for college sports. 2011 saw storied athletic programs hit hard by disturbing child sex abuse allegations, recruiting scandals, and rules violations. As President Emmert has pointed out, a year ago no one dreamed that head coaches at powerhouse athletic programs at Penn State, Ohio State, Tennessee, and North Carolina would be gone by the end of the year.

Few also foresaw the full impact of unprecedented multibillion dollar TV football contracts in the BCS and the madcap conference realignments that followed, with little or no regard for student athletes and their education. In the Big East, athletes will now fly from Boise to Boston and San Diego to Storrs and back again to compete. It's hard to fly much further and still be in the continental U.S.

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education went so far as to publish a front page story on intercollegiate athletics under the headline: "What in the hell has happened to college sports?"

Now, to be clear, major recruiting violations, academic fraud, stealing, violent crime, and child sex abuse are obviously all still exceptions in college sports programs. The overwhelming majority of institutions, including in the Division I revenue sports, run clean programs and are heavily subsidizing their teams, not the other way around. And I know that while coaches love to compete, it's very rare to find a college coach that does not care deeply about his players' character and education. I've never understood how a coach could have high expectations for his players on the court and low expectations off of it.

Yet, like it or not, the scandals and the conference jockeying for dollars have created a disturbing and dangerous narrative that all college leaders, ADs, and coaches must grapple with today.

The narrative in 2012 is that college sports is all about the deal, it's all about the brand, it's all about big-time college football programs saying "show me the money."

Too often, large, successful programs seem to exist in a world of their own. Their football and basketball players, and even the coaches, are given license to behave in ways that would be unacceptable elsewhere in higher education or in society at large. And nothing—nothing—does more to corrode public faith in intercollegiate sports than the appearance of a double standard for coaches or athletes in big-time programs.

This narrative is a threat to the core principles of the NCAA, the mission of higher education, and the amateur tradition. And without decisive action by college leaders, that storyline, and the challenges it creates, is likely to become even more embedded in the public's mind.

In the next couple of years, television media revenues for the top five conferences will more than double. Coaches making five million dollars a year could one day soon earn ten million dollars a year. Nearly 40 assistant football coaches in the FBS now earn more than $400,000 a year. That's about what my boss, President Obama, makes. It is hard to think of a non-profit, much less an educational non-profit, where such exorbitant salaries wouldn't create an outcry.

In one BCS conference, institutions are now spending nearly 12 times as much on athletic spending per athlete as they are on academic spending per student. I can't tell you exactly what that ratio should be—or how much more out of whack it may get—without a concerted, collective effort to slow runaway spending in the revenue sports.

Barring action to moderate the athletic arms race, the pressure to build more gilded athletic facilities will grow—even as other infrastructure on campus deteriorates, and even as faculty and non-athletic staff face salary freezes and furloughs. Meanwhile, antitrust challenges are advancing in the courts that also threaten the amateur traditions of college sports.

That is the path which big-time college sports are on today. We know how that movie ends. But with your leadership, I believe institutions of higher education and the NCAA can create a different path.

You can implement far-reaching reforms to reassert the educational mission of universities and colleges. You can reaffirm the NCAA's principle that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.

Just as is the case in K-12 education, the baseline litmus test about reforms should be, is this good for students—not is it good for adults, or coaches and ADs, and alumni boosters.

I know you can create a better model of intercollegiate sports for the 21st century that strikes a healthier balance between academics and athletics, and that does more to both incentivize good behavior and penalize rogue programs, coaches, and players. I believe you can overhaul the NCAA's crazily complex rulebook and its laborious, vacuum-cleaner enforcement process.

Here's what I don't believe: I don't believe that you can meet these challenges by doing business-as-usual, by pushing legislation through the NCAA that takes years to be approved, and that often ends up watered down to the lowest common denominator.

I don't believe you can strike a healthier balance between academics and athletics without courageous leadership that takes you outside your comfort zone—including making decisions that may be the right thing to do for students but may not necessarily maximize the interests of your conference.

And I don't believe you'll get this perfect—perfection is not the goal. I don't believe you'll put an end to commercialization in revenue sports and competitive financial advantages on the playing field or court. I don't believe that all recruiting violations will magically cease.

Striking a healthier balance between athletics and academics doesn't mean that the needs of athletics programs will disappear or are somehow less than vital. Challenge the status quo, not in the pursuit of perfection, but to better align your work with your moral compass—with what you know is right.

This is tough, controversial work. The intense competitive pressures and alumni pressure that many college presidents, coaches, and ADs work under every day are very real. But the difficulty of change can't become an excuse for throwing in the towel on strengthening the collegiate sports model.

Before I talk a bit about what a better model might look like, I want to be clear that I come here today not as a critic but as an absolute believer in the value of college sports. I learned firsthand about their importance and impact from my own experiences and those of my family.

I am still incredibly grateful to my coaches for the opportunities they gave me when I played college basketball. The lessons and friendships I gained as a student athlete have shaped me in profound ways.

We all know student athletes often spend more time with their coaches than they do with any professor during college. And great coaches, just like great teachers, transform the lives of their students.

My sister, who was a much better basketball player than me, also played in Division I, and was an early beneficiary of Title IX. Maintaining Title IX, maintaining sports opportunities for women is not a legal abstraction for me—I saw how Title IX transformed college sports for the better. My mother, who was actually the best athlete in our family, went to college pre-Title IX—and didn't have the same opportunities as my sister and me.

Some of you may know that my father was the faculty representative to the NCAA at the University of Chicago for more than a quarter century. I remember him coming home from NCAA conventions, animated about the discussions and recounting the debates that took place there. I loved those dinner-time conversations.

My dad instilled in me the understanding that the mission of a university was a dual mission: To educate its students and to prepare them for life. If a college fails to educate all of its students—if it fails to give them a chance to learn and grow—then that university has failed it mission.

Yet when athletic programs do have their priorities in order, there is no better way to teach invaluable life lessons than on the playing field or court. It's an ideal training ground for learning the skills of discipline, resilience, selflessness, taking responsibility, and, above all, leadership.

Like most student athletes, I felt it was an incredible privilege and an honor to represent my university, not a form of exploitation. So, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I got to see the best that college sports had to offer, and, unfortunately, the worst.

I played with inner-city stars who had been used and dumped by their universities. Ultimately, they had nothing to show for the wins, the championships, and the revenues they brought to their schools. When the ball stopped bouncing, they had very few opportunities in life. They struggled to find work, had difficult lives, and some died early.

Advocates of pay-to-play seem to assume that a full athletic scholarship is small reward for the health risks that athletes assume and the financial rewards reaped by successful college sports programs.

But that was not my experience. The clear dividing line for success in life among the inner-city kids who I played with and grew up with was between those who went to college and got their degrees, and those who did not.

Everyone here today knows that just a tiny percent of Division I players will ever go on to the pros. But getting that degree can change the course of their lives, and their families' lives, forever.

To restore a healthier balance between athletics and academics in the revenue sports, I would encourage college leaders to begin changing policies that clearly fail to put the interests of student-athletes first.

Let me cite a couple of concrete examples. It is not a problem per se that BCS conferences have negotiated lucrative television contracts for their football teams. In a number of instances, those contracts have allowed athletic programs to stop being financial drains on their universities, freeing up more institutional resources for academic purposes.

However, it is a problem that the BCS conferences use zero percent of their bowl game revenues for educational components or to support student academic success.

By contrast, the NCAA has at least some ties to educational goals in its revenue distribution formula for the March Madness tournament.

I believe the NCAA tournament revenue formula should be revised to do more to reward teams that don't shortchange academics, and that less revenue should be awarded based solely on wins on the court. At present, the NCAA awards $1.4 million to conferences each time one of their teams wins a game in the tournament.

The BCS awards even more, $20 million a win to a conference for each BCS bowl victory. There has to be a better way to distribute post-season revenues in a manner that does more to support the educational mission of the university.

Finally, creating a better balance between academics and athletics also requires overhauling the NCAA's rulebook and enforcement procedures, which too often undermine faith in the NCAA and cast doubts on the viability of the amateur ethos.

At 426 pages, the NCAA Division I rulebook is about half again longer than the New Testament. It contains two-and-a-half pages that outline the NCAA's Principles of Conduct—followed by 400 plus pages of rules. It is so complex that not even compliance personnel in athletic departments know all the rules.

More than a few rules edge toward the ridiculous. The rulebook contains three pages on the size of the envelope that institutions are allowed to use to send mailings to prospective student athletes. Several years ago, the University of Maryland ran afoul of an NCAA rule that promotional pamphlets for athletes can only have three colors. Their offense? It turns out that the state seal of Maryland has four colors.

And who can forget the urgent controversy over a bylaw that allows an institution to provide a bagel to a student-athlete as a snack? The problem is that bagels with cream cheese must count as an allowable meal. But fear not—this year's legislative cycle includes a proposal to permit bagel spreads.

Almost everyone, including NCAA leaders, thinks the NCAA needs to have a simpler and shorter set of rules, with meaningful sanctions for coaches, ADs, programs, and athletes that violate the NCAA's core principles. As the NCAA enforcement working group has recommended, enforcement needs to distinguish between egregious violations, serious violations, and minor or technical violations.

So, in the spirit of promoting reforms to enhance the educational purposes of the university, let me throw out four additional steps beyond overhauling rules and enforcement that could support student-athlete success—most of which the NCAA is already taking on.

I want to be clear that I am not endorsing a specific course of action or program for the NCAA or its member institutions. These are broad-brush strokes. They are meant to encourage a national dialogue among college leaders about steps that might be taken to incentivize the right priorities in big-time college sports. You are the experts here—and I am convinced that that you can come up with many other creative solutions.

First, as I mentioned, the BCS conferences should set aside a meaningful share of bowl revenues for an academic enhancement fund that supports the education of student athletes. The NCAA has no control over bowl revenues, so this would be a decision each conference would have to make.

There are models out there to look at now, from the Knight Commission's proposed Academic-Athletics Balance Fund to the NCAA's degree-completion award programs, which enable athletes to return to get their degrees after their five-year eligibility period expires.

Second, too many special admits are not capable of doing college work and competition on day one. In October, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved creating a freshman academic redshirt year for academically ineligible students, which would allow them the time and education to handle college work before they could compete.

If students can't do college work, even with assistance, they shouldn't be playing sports until they are academically ready.

An academic redshirt period would also reduce the number of unprepared basketball recruits who enroll with the expectation they will be one-and-done players, which makes a mockery of the idea that they are college students at all.

When the academic redshirt year proposal is implemented in 2015, I think it will have a bigger impact than many people realize. Up to a third of FBS football players and 43 percent of Division I basketball players may be required to serve an academic redshirt year.

And finally, the NCAA Convention has two proposals up for review. One would allow schools to provide multiyear scholarships; a second proposal would allow conferences to provide up to $2,000 in additional scholarship aid, up to the full cost of attendance.

I know these proposals have met with some opposition. They may need to be modified to comply with Title IX. A number of FBS schools have objected on the grounds that the proposals could cause a financial strain and put coaches at smaller FBS programs at a competitive disadvantage.

I don't know what the NCAA membership will ultimately decide about these initiatives. But it seems clear that they are steps in the right direction to protect student athletes and put their interests first. I don't see how coaches jettisoning scholarship athletes at will is in the student's best educational interest.

I expect that some sportswriters and coaches will contend the directions for reform that I've sketched out today are naïve. But I would counter that it's the skeptics who have been largely bamboozled.

They have bought into the myth that the only way to win a national title is to cut academic corners, and they claim that big money and the competitive pressures will ultimately sweep aside all attempts to protect the educational interests of student athletes.

Simply put, history doesn't bear them out. I congratulate the Crimson Tide on winning the BCS championship on Monday night. But don't forget that both Alabama and LSU's football teams have excellent academic records, with graduation rates around 70 percent and APRs above 960.

And don't forget that when the NCAA raised eligibility standards for student-athletes with Proposition 48, there was a firestorm of opposition. The critics said minority athletes would be denied the opportunity to go to college, and would be victimized by the inferior high schools they attended.

The critics exaggerated. After an initial dip in black participation, the sky did not fall. The proportion of black male players in Division I basketball and football subsequently increased.

High school minority student athletes take more college prep classes today than before, achieve a higher GPA, score higher on standardized tests, and graduate at a higher rate from college. High schools, coaches, and minority athletes rose to the challenge of higher standards. Raising expectations, raising the bar, is always the right way to go, not dumbing things down.

As some of you will recall, last spring I supported the Knight Commission's longstanding recommendation that teams should be on track to graduate at least half of their players—just one in two—to be eligible for post-season play. Frankly, I see that as simply a starting point, not the ultimate goal.

One Hall of Fame basketball coach told USA Today that the proposal and my endorsement was, quote, "completely nuts."

Six months later, thankfully, apparently similarly deranged Division I college presidents overwhelmingly approved it.

So I have every faith that when the NCAA and the BCS conferences step up and say, 'we are going to draw a line in the sand about academic outcomes,' you'll see behavior change rapidly.

If the metric of being on-track to a 50 percent graduation rate was used in last year's basketball tournament, the national champion, Connecticut, would have been ineligible to participate. Five of this year's 70 teams in the BCS bowl games would have been ineligible.

Just think of the profound impact that policy is going to have on coaches and athletic departments and the emphasis they place on academic success.

I guarantee you no coach will want to walk into the locker room to tell his players, "even though we might win the national title this year, we can't compete because our players didn't study hard enough."

Incentives matter. And I guarantee no coach will want to walk into the president's office and say "We can't compete in a BCS bowl game—I'm sorry our conference isn't eligible for that $20 million victory prize."

So, to all the Division I college leaders here today, I absolutely applaud the reforms you have approved in recent months and the direction of new reforms under consideration. Keep going—and please resist the temptation to just tinker or temper with your core principles.

Many Division II leaders are here today, too, and they have set a leading example of the power of collective action. It's true that Division II programs don't have to manage lucrative football TV revenues. But Division II programs also face competitive pressures that could easily pull them away from their values if they are not vigilant.

Acting together, Division II presidents have created a better-balanced college experience for their student athletes. They have shortened the playing season, allow fewer competitions during the school year, and have a no-games/no-practice break in December.

In the end, doing the right thing in college sports is not really a complicated intellectual challenge. This doesn't take a Nobel laureate to solve. College presidents know what advances education for student athletes—and they know what undermines it.

I would be the first to acknowledge that college sports reform is a tough political challenge on campus. But ultimately, this is a challenge of leadership. And leading your campus and programs is the reason that so many of you signed up for the job.

Working collectively, with conviction, with courage, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone, I believe you can create a better balance between athletics and academics.

Now is the time for Division I leaders and the NCAA to step forward to reassert the interests of student athletes, advance the educational mission of your institutions, and regain the public's trust and respect. It's time to raise the game. It's time to bring your "A" game for success—in athletics and academics, on the field and off it.