COLLEGE PARK — College athletics faces a changing and challenging landscape that will demand new approaches and solutions, a panel of experts agreed Wednesday night.
But the panelists also agreed to disagree over what those new approaches and solutions might look like.
“I think intercollegiate athletics is in a time of great uncertainty,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. He cited the divide between revenue-generating schools and those that barely get by as well as two lawsuits that threaten to change college athletics fundamentally.
The Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism hosted the panel to discuss hot topics such as paying athletes and a proposal to make first-year students ineligible to play varsity sports.
USA Today columnist Christine Brennan moderated the panel that also included University of Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, Merrill College professor and Around the Horn panelist Kevin Blackistone, professional football player Akeem Davis and University of Maryland field hockey head coach Missy Meharg.
The panel focused initially on the idea of paying athletes and the potential impact that would have on college athletics.
“I’m an anarchist when it comes to this,” Blackistone said. “I think the entire model should be blown up. I think that Kevin Anderson should be the CEO of a for-profit corporation, running athletics for the University of Maryland, Incorporated, and paying rights fees to use the facilities and swing the banner and wear the colors of the university.”
But an animated Anderson defended the student-athlete model, saying other athletic directors seemed too embarrassed to defend it.
“Well, I’ll sit in front of you tonight and I’ll defend where we are now,” he said. “If [student-athletes] come to the University of Maryland and do everything we ask them to do, they’re going to leave here with a degree. So I would like somebody to talk to me tonight and tell me there is not value in that.”
Davis, a safety on the Washington professional football team, thought that players should be paid, but also said they don’t take enough advantage of the opportunities afforded by their scholarships.
“We don’t put enough emphasis on the actual scholarship that we receive,” he said. “We do our due diligence by cashing in on the scholarship.”
Kirwan, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, doesn’t think that athletes should be paid, in part because of the logistical problems that would come with paying them. “I’ve never seen the economic model that enables it to work,” he said.
The panel also discussed a recent proposal by the Big Ten Conference that would automatically redshirt freshmen, forcing them to sit out their first year.
“We’re talking about those student-athletes who might struggle on campus initially, getting them adopted to campus life and rigors,” Anderson said about the proposal. He also said that the proposal has opened up dialogue about the different components of college athletics that need to be changed as the system modernizes.
“It would enable student-athletes to get grounded in education and get a better start to their school work,” Kirwan said. “I think potentially there is real academic benefit to freshman ineligibility.”
But he also felt there would be fiscal challenges. “There’s going to be freshman teams,” he said. “You’re adding another team, it may not have the full schedule of competition or have the same number of coaches, but … there is an added cost.”
Davis, who graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in finance and is six credits away from a master’s degree, didn’t believe a year off to start his career would have benefited him.
He talked about the things his junior college coach required him to do his first year, like sit in the first two rows of classes and take his hat off inside. Players had to go through demanding early morning practices if they missed study hall or were late to meetings and practices.
These things, he said, helped him get the discipline he needed to be successful. And it could harm players athletically to not play their first year, he added.
“I started thinking why don’t we just make it for those who need it?” Meharg said about when she first heard about the idea. “If they need to not be competing in the first year, and they need the resources and the time and the adjustment and the integration, then give them that.”