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College intercollegiate athletics – the beginning of the end?

College athletes at the Division 1 level for football and men’s basketball are looking more like professional sports players and less like college students. This is especially true of the Power Five conferences — ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12. These conferences have provided the NFL and NBA professional leagues with a never-ending supply of players at no cost to them.

College intercollegiate sports started simply as a group of guys on campus playing football and basketball on the weekends with their fellow students. These were referred to as “club” sports then. After a few years, they decided to play club teams from nearby colleges.

As college enrollments increased, interest in playing other colleges grew in terms of student participation and teams traveled farther from campus. Competition became fierce and winning required colleges to “recruit” the best high school players as well as hire successful coaches.

Fast forward to today. Being competitive is so important that football coaches at two of Virginia’s top-tier universities are paid more than 5 times as much as their university presidents. Assistant football coaches earn 5-10 times more than the average faculty member. Most ACC men’s basketball head coaches are paid approximately 4-5 times more than their respective university presidents.

Some star athletes do not meet normal admission standards so exceptions are often made. In addition, tutors are hired to help some athletes guide them through their degree program. For their efforts, athletes at Division 1 colleges receive scholarships covering room, board, tuition, books and a very small amount of spending money. Division 2 colleges can award partial scholarships.

As colleges became increasingly involved in athletic competition, in 1906 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed to provide some degree of rules and regulations. Football and men’s basketball were especially important due to the practice time commitment and extensive travel for games. Both affected the student-athletes’ class and study time. These two sports provide funding for practically all of the other intercollegiate sports teams.

Prior to 1972, college freshmen football and basketball players could not play on varsity teams; that rule was dropped effective that year. In the past few years, rules eased on athletes transferring to other colleges, and the 2018 debut of the transfer portal easily facilitated that movement. Today it is not uncommon for a player in these sports to attend three universities.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 21, allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL). That decision has now moved college athletics more from a higher education function to one similar to a professional sports league.

Colleges have spent millions of dollars attracting the best athletic talent with stellar facilities like locker rooms, dining, recreation and indoor practice facilities. Now colleges flush with cash will get richer and the smaller colleges will lose.

The Power Five College athletic conferences have also provided Major League Baseball benefits from college baseball teams but, in addition, the major leagues have a system of minor leagues as a major source of developing players.

If a college athlete can now earn thousands or even millions of dollars playing college sports, will these athletes continue to appreciate a college degree or will they decide a year or two of college is enough? If they do not make the first team as a starter, will they transfer? Will college intercollegiate sports then fade as minor professional football and basketball leagues take over?

The future remains to be seen. I would love to have your predictions on this topic. Please feel free to email me at hrobert@vt.edu.

Robert N. Holt

Bob is a graduate of Franklin High School and Virginia Tech. He can be reached at hrobert@vt.edu