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A League of Fans Special Feature

Allen Sack

Dr. Allen Sack is a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven.  He’s also the current president of the Drake Group, a college faculty consortium whose mission is to defend academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college sports industry.  Sack began his career as a sociology professor and has taught a variety of sports sociology courses.  He played football at Notre Dame from 1963-1966 under legendary coach Ara Parseghian.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Sack about the state of college sports and sports management as a field of academic study.

Ken Reed:  How would you compare your experience as a football player at Notre Dame in 1966 with what you see in big-time college football today?

Allen Sack:  First of all, I don’t remember the term “student-athlete” being used.  There was no mistaking that athletes were students.

Second, freshmen weren’t allowed to play.  The message was “Do well in the classroom.”  Today, freshmen play on national TV before their first class on campus!

Third, we had four-year guaranteed scholarships.  If you were injured, or considered a recruiting mistake, you were still guaranteed your scholarship.  It was clear that you were brought to campus to get an education.  The scholarship was considered a gift.

In 1973, the NCAA went to one-year renewable scholarships.  It became quid pro quo.  It became a contractual arrangement: If you perform well, we’ll cover school, if not, we’ll get rid of you.  So, today, with the one-year renewable scholarships, you have a highly controlled workforce.  Athletes know that if they screw up on the athletic field, they’re gone.   Therefore, it’s natural that when push comes to shove they’re going to focus more on their sport than the classroom.

Fourth, is television.  Television has completely changed the sport.  In 1984, the NCAA lost control of television contracts through an anti-trust lawsuit brought by the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia.  TV deals became free enterprise.  Each institution was now allowed to negotiate its own TV contracts.  That court case erased any demarcation between college and pro sports.

It’s getting worse and worse.  The recent conference realignment frenzy was all about penetrating new TV markets.  What does that have to do with education?

Reed:  You recently began a term as president of the Drake Group.  What are your primary initiatives for 2012?

Sack:  We eventually want to get a student-athletes’ “right-to-know” act passed in every state.  Together with Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association we got it passed in California and Connecticut.  The law requires transparency in the recruiting process.  Colleges and universities must fully disclose the details of what is and isn’t covered by an athletic scholarship.  For example, is the full cost of attendance covered?  What are the school’s policies when it comes to sports-related medical expenses?  Etc.  We’re targeting Texas and Ohio this year.

We’re also going to be pushing for a long overdue Congressional hearing before the House Ways and Means committee.  Universities aren’t paying taxes on their big-time sports programs.  We want the NCAA to explain to Congress what they do to deserve tax-exempt status for big-time college athletic departments.  We’re trying to defend academic integrity.  The monster of commercialism in college sports is gobbling up academic integrity.

Reed:  As a sports management professor, what do you think are the roles and responsibilities of sports management programs in academia in terms of preparing students for careers in sports in this era of rampant over-commercialization and professionalization?

Sack:  Ethics has to be seriously dealt with in any sports management program.  Sports management programs have the responsibility to not only develop skills and knowledge but also the ability to engage in open dialogue on ethical issues.  Ideally, there are courses in sports studies areas like ethics and sports policy.

Reed:  You began your career as a sociologist with a research interest in sports sociology and then moved to sports management.  Has that move changed your perspective any?

Sack:  I began as a sociologist with an interest in sports.  I was asked to start the sports management program at New Haven.  Being in the college of business in general, and sports management in particular, I’ve learned much more about how the sports system really works.  I’m more critical of the sports industry now because I understand it better.  It’s gratifying to know that our sports management students are going into a sports career with some appreciation for sports and society issues.

Reed:  You played major college sports and were an outstanding student.  Is there a way that big-time college sports and higher education can co-exist in your mind?

Sack:  I think going back to multi-year scholarships – four or five years –instead of the current one-year renewable scholarships would be a step in the right direction.  Also, I think admission standards should be raised.  In addition, there should be no freshman eligibility for students on special admits.

Reed:  You’ve been involved in the college sports reform effort for a long time.  Do you ever get frustrated that things appear to be worse than ever in big-time college sports?

Sack:  There’s frustration, but I have some hope too.  One thing’s for sure, more people than ever are aware of the problems and issues in college sports today.  Looking back 15-20 years, people thought I was crazy for raising a lot of these issues back then.  Today, more people understand the issues.  There has definitely been progress in terms of awareness.  People realize there’s a problem here between big-time college sports and higher education.

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