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Editorial: Why college sports reform movements hit a brick wall

Here's a useful fact to remember when the talk turns to college-sports reform: The Ivy League got its start as a football conference. Sports has been a driving force in American higher education for a long, long time, in other words. Forum Commun...

Here's a useful fact to remember when the talk turns to college-sports reform:

The Ivy League got its start as a football conference.

Sports has been a driving force in American higher education for a long, long time, in other words. Forum Communications columnist Rob Port decries that situation in his column today, and he's not alone.

At the very least, Port says, colleges should cut off subsidies for athletics. But a quick review of the history of college sports suggests the following: That's not going to happen. Reformers started fretting about sports on campus in the 1800s. Now it's 2017, and 69 million people streamed NCAA March Madness Live as recently as last month.

At this point, we do know more of the reasons behind sports' continuing popularity. Those reasons are worth reviewing-including in North Dakota, which although it's undergoing budget cuts, almost certainly will keep supporting intercollegiate sports.

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One other telling piece of evidence, again about the Ivy League.

Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the league's other schools are the academic world's most prestigious institutions. If anyone would have an interest in de-emphasizing sports, it would be them. Their academic "brands" are the source of their fame, and the schools would seem to have every reason to focus solely on attracting the smartest students on Earth.

That's the dream. Here's the reality:

"Roughly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of the entering class at the Ivy League universities and the leading small liberal arts colleges are recruited athletes," sports-reformer and Columbia University professor Jonathan Cole griped in 2010.

"These athletes' SAT scores are well above the national average, but far lower than most other students who are admitted into these distinguished schools."

Which raises the question: "Why in the world," Cole asked, "are the schools using up 20 percent of their slots on recruited athletes?"

Because supporters of campus sports have power, and the critics generally don't. That's why.

There are five key constituencies in academia that could, if they chose, change the landscape of college sports, wrote retired Penn State Professor Ronald Smith in his 2011 book, "Pay for play: A history of big-time college athletic reform." They are students, college presidents, boards of trustees, alumni and faculty.

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But the first four groups support the status quo, because they not only delight in it but also are convinced that it's a clear net benefit for their school. (To that group, we'd add taxpayers, an important constituency for public universities.)

Only the faculty routinely think otherwise; but college faculties have limited power.

Interestingly, there's one group that has successfully intervened: the U.S. government. Title IX reshaped the landscape more forcefully than anything before or since, Smith notes.

So if the situation gets outrageous enough to interest Congress and the courts, something might change. But reformers who want, say, Bison Nation to demand that North Dakota State University stop supporting the NDSU football team are probably in for a long wait.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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