Debates about the future of athletics in higher education frequently point to a developing financial crisis. The crux of this crisis “lies in the mathematically impossible quest of each athletic department to keep up with the most accomplished athletic departments,” perpetuating what is commonly referred to as the athletics “Arms Race” (Bass, et al, 2015, p. 72). For schools that generate considerable revenue amid this race, “it will likely be business as usual in the coming decades” (Bass, et al, 2015, p. 73). However, there may be trouble on the horizon “for those institutions relying on university funding and student fees for large portions of their budget” (Bass, et al, 2015, pp. 73-74). As coaching salaries and the cost of facilities continue to rise, many institutions will be hard pressed to compete without maintaining public support and/or deferring costs to students in the form of fees.

Recent court decisions may ultimately exacerbate the “Arms Race.” For example, while the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did not award more substantial remedies in the case of O’Bannon vs. the NCAA, the court did find that “certain amateurism rules violate federal antitrust law” (McCann 1). To help preserve this system and settle the monetary portion of a class action lawsuit, the NCAA and eleven member conferences recently created a 208.7 million dollar fund for the benefit of current and former Division I basketball and football players. This fund “will award class members money up to, but not exceeding, their full cost of attendance” and help to maintain “cost of attendance as an appropriate dividing line between collegiate and professional sports” (“NCAA Establishes Fund,” 2017).

For the time being – and because there are provisions that allow institutions to compensate any student-athlete up the full cost of attendance – “the NCAA’s controversial system of ‘amateurism’ largely remains in place” (McCann 2). However, the Ninth Circuit’s decision could be used as favorable precedent by those who would argue that the NCAA and its member institutions “conspire” on a “system where no school pays student-athletes in excess of athletic scholarships” (McCann 3). While the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on this controversial issue – and while the impact of the O’Bannon decision may take several years to play out – a future decision in favor of student-athletes could “upend the NCAA’s system of amateurism” and create an even more competitive environment in which they are compensated above and beyond the cost of attendance – for example, in the form of revenue sharing or cash incentives.

This type of environment would only increase competition (and spending) for the most talented players. At the very least, “antitrust legislation appears to hold some opportunities for athletes to join together and […] secure health insurance, across the board guaranteed scholarships, and an overall voice in the decision making of the NCAA” (Bass, et al, 2015, p. 85). Moving forward, it will very important to monitor the implications of future court decisions for athletics funding across the board. Decisions in favor of high-profile athletes – including intersections with the requirements of Title IX – would force colleges and universities to reimagine the ways in which they fund all sports.

As the costs associated with athletics continue to rise, institutions may also be pressed to demonstrate – and perhaps even to quantify – the educational legitimacy of intercollegiate athletics. Researchers have made frequent reference to the holistic benefits of athletic participation. These include “enhanced time management skills, heightened levels of self-discipline, and the ability to balance dual roles as both students and athletes” (Weight, et al, 2014, p. 391). However, “many of the benefits have not been quantified with empirical research” (p. 391). Findings of one recent effort to fill this research gap suggest that participation in athletics may not necessarily – or automatically – result in “universal holistic development” and that practitioners must “deliver programs to cultivate the benefits [of participation] (p. 391). In other words, college and university personnel must be active in helping student-athletes recognize and practice transferable skills (i.e., skills learned through athletics participation) in other contexts.

Meanwhile, another recent study, which surveyed employers to assess the perceived benefits of athletic participation, found that companies seeking to fill positions with former athletes “do so because they pair athletic participation with dispositional attributes […] including competitive nature, goal-orientation, ability to handle pressure, strong work ethic, confidence, coach-ability, ability to work with others, self-motivation, mental toughness, and time management skills” (Chalfin, et al, p. 19). However, there was also a tendency in these surveys to value superior athletic achievement and/or team leadership experience (e.g., team captains, All-Americans) more highly than “membership on an athletic team” (p. 20). Again, this study suggests that participation alone may not result in tangible benefits. Amidst growing pressure to demonstrate the educational legitimacy of athletic participation, institutions will need to be proactive in conducting their own research/ assessment, and in taking steps to connect the perceived benefits of athletic participation to their core values and desired outcomes.

The NCAA is taking steps to help institutions in these assessment efforts. Realizing the need to help student-athletes excel in the classroom, the Division I Committee on Academics has tentatively endorsed “a tool that identifies potential data points that high-level leaders at schools could review to analyze academic performance on an individual campus” (“DI Academics Group,” 2017). Member institutions would have the option to use this tool in assessing student-athletes’ overall performance and comparing it to that of the general student population. Among the “data points” is student-athletes’ rate of participation in engaging educational activities such as internships and study abroad.

To support participation in these activities, the Division I Council passed legislation that “extends the time students have to complete four years of eligibility if they pursue a degree-applicable internship or study abroad program during the regular school year. Students generally have five years to complete four years of eligibility, and with the new rules, that time spent in the internship or study abroad program is exempt from counting against the five-year period” (“DI Council Approves,” 2017). This rule change is part of “a division-wide effort to provide students with the opportunity to better balance their athletics and academic commitments” (“DI Student-Athletes,” 2017).

Already, “student-athletes and other representatives of schools in the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences approved several measures aimed at helping their student-athletes have more discretionary time if they want it” (“DI Student-Athletes,” 2017). Measures include: requiring “the creation of a time management plan for each sport and an annual review of that plan”; prohibiting “athletically related activities during a continuous eight-hour period between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.”; and requiring “a seven-day break after the season and 14 additional days off during the regular academic year when classes are in session” (“DI Student-Athletes,” 2017).


Bass, J.R., Schaeperkoetter, C.C., & Bunds, K.S. (2015). The ‘front porch: Examining the increasing interconnection of university and athletic department funding. ASHE Higher Education Report, 41(5). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chalfin, P., Weight, E., Osborne, B., & Johnson, S. (2015). The value of intercollegiate athletics participation from the perspective of employers who target athletes. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, 8, 1-27.

DI academics group exploring evaluation tool. (2017, Feb. 6). Retrieved from

DI council approves time commitment legislation. (2017, Jan. 18). Retrieved from

DI student-athletes to have more time away from sports. (2017, Jan. 20). Retrieved from

McCann, M. (2016, Oct. 3). In denying O’bannon case, Supreme Court leaves future of amateurism in limbo. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from

NCAA establishes fund for student-athletes. (2017, Feb. 3). Retrieved from

Weight, E., Navarro, K., Huffman, L., & Smith-Ryan, A. (2014). Quantifying the psychological benefits of intercollegiate athletics participation. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, 7, 390-409.

Notes from “Emmert Stresses Diligence in Three Commitments to College Athletics”

“With regard to student-athlete health and well-being, [NCAA President Mark] Emmert said higher education has a unique opportunity and responsibility, especially given that some of the world’s best research universities are within the membership.

“The NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense continue to collaborate on a concussion study that has more than 28,000 participants. The goal is to find more conclusive ways to benefit the Association’s student-athletes by making sports safer to compete in, and in the process aid society more broadly. Mental health care is another issue that Emmert said student-athletes often want to discuss. He believes it is important to evolve the college sports culture so that coming forward with a mental health issue will be encouraged and not stigmatized. Intercollegiate sports can play a role in reaching that goal in society, Emmert said.”

“Emmert then pointed to sexual assault as an area of well-being that needs continual focus. The Association took steps to address the issue this year when the NCAA Sexual Assault Task Force published a prevention tool kit that was endorsed by higher education associations, committees throughout the NCAA governance structure and subject matter experts throughout the field. And the NCAA’s top governing body, the Board of Governors, has created a Commission to Combat Campus Sexual Violence to continue that work and initiate a change in campus culture.”


Emmert stresses diligence in three commitments to college athletics. (2017, Jan. 20). Retrieved from