The NCAA's Attack on Academic Freedom

It sounds like something you might hear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Question: What does it take for the NCAA to withdraw funding from scholars who study college sport? Answer: Scholars who actually say something about their study of college sport.

It would almost be funny if it weren't true. On the eve of the 2013 NCAA's Annual Convention, NCAA National Office officials met with the executive board of its Forum for the Scholarly Study of Intercollegiate Athletics (hereafter: Forum) to deliver the news that funding allocated to support an annual colloquium to foster multi-disciplinary research on college sport, held prior to the NCAA Convention, and support an academic journal was being taken away. According to NCAA vice-president James Isch, there were three reasons for the cut:

1) A lack of demonstrated interest in the colloquium (fact: despite minimalist promotional efforts on the part of the NCAA hundreds have attended keynotes and panels over the years); and

2) A lack of profitability for the journal (fact: the journal was never intended to be a profit-center); and

3) A failure to impact policy (fact: scholars on the program are among the leading experts in the field).

Viewed as a flimsy pretext by Forum board members, these reasons did not match up with behind the scenes conversations that took place last fall between NCAA vice president for public policy, Wally Renfro, and Forum president, David Wiggins. Renfro reported then that NCAA officials had grown impatient with the candid dialogue that had become part of the colloquium and the Forum ran the risk of being defunded as a result.

At a convention where NCAA president Mark Emmert's State of the Association Address was described by one journalist as "32 minutes of nothing," it appears the NCAA National Office's tolerance for academic freedom - saying something not "on message" -- is running rather low. There will be many who will dismiss this most recent episode as simply one more among a growing list of embarrassing NCAA National Office missteps. However, this incident provides insight into the machinations of an Association controlled in large part by National Office staffers working in collaboration with a Board of Directors and Executive Board comprised of athletics administrators and university presidents representing the vested interests of a handful of the most powerful athletic programs in the country.

As a private actor (NCAA v. Tarkanian), the courts have historically permitted NCAA enforcement committees and staff to play fast-and-loose with due process and the rights of individuals. Recent revelations drawn from the McNair v. NCAA lawsuit, where two non-voting NCAA infractions-committee members and an NCAA staffer allegedly sought to improperly influence a decision regarding a former assistant football coach at the University of Southern California (USC) for wrongdoing that could not be proven bears this out. On the basis of the evidence, Judge Frederick Shaller determined the NCAA had a "reckless disregard for the truth." In December of 2012, NCAA lead investigator Abigail Grantstein was allegedly fired after public comments made by her boyfriend and overheard on an airplane revealed a predisposition to penalize University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) first year men's basketball player Shabazz Muhammad before facts in the case had been gathered. On Wednesday, January 23, 2013 the NCAA announced that it had uncovered an issue of improper conduct among its own enforcement staff investigating the University of Miami case necessitating an external review.

So what is different this time around? Wouldn't the violation of individual rights and a reckless disregard for the truth be enough? It should be but hasn't proven sufficient to cause real change thus far. This time around, however, the Association revealed in words and action that it has little respect for the most fundamental and foundational principle upon which American higher education is based, that being academic freedom. Symbolically and practically, the NCAA raised the stakes when it sought to silence scholars on these grounds. By seeking to stifle the views of some, the NCAA was effectively requiring scholars associated with the Forum and its activities to abide by what amounted to a "loyalty oath" or operate within a carefully orchestrated script where dissent was not only not valued, but eliminated. This expectation is in direct contradiction to the purpose of American colleges and universities where an open exchange of ideas in a free society forms the basis of its value to the democracy. In Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York (1967), a case where it was determined professors were not to be required to sign loyalty oaths as a matter of employment, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote, "Academic freedom is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned." He went on to write, "The vigilant protection of constitutional freedom is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools."

Rational, independent inquiry free from threat of retaliation and punishment is the currency of higher education and its contribution to the American democracy. Without open dialogue and access to information, there is no accountability. And at this juncture, it appears that the NCAA National Office is resisting attempts to be held accountable.

The unceremonious end of the Forum came, truth be told, in line at the buffet before the executive board had its meeting. That was where Mr. Isch summarily informed Forum president David Wiggins the NCAA National Office had decided to "go in a different direction" with its research efforts. The official announcement to the executive board was apparently regarded as just desserts.

The end itself, however, may have been predicted by the colloquium's rocky beginnings. In 2007, after receiving submissions to an open call for papers for what was to have been the first Scholarly Colloquium on College Sport sponsored by the NCAA, the inaugural event was abruptly cancelled. Even then, the event that came to be known as "the lost conference," raised concerns about the NCAA's intolerance for open dialogue. The NCAA's claim of a lack of quality submissions to its initial call for papers rang hollow when it was revealed the mechanism in place for peer-review of submissions was never activated. Quite simply the scholars who had been approached to review submissions were never given the opportunity to do so; the NCAA National Office unilaterally scuttled the conference.

If the U.S. Congress needs a reason to investigate the NCAA, this should be it. How can the NCAA National Office continue to assert it has a meaningful connection to the tenets of higher education when it has so blatantly violated them with this action? In 2007, then Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, sent a letter to the NCAA asking it to justify its tax-exempt status in light of its business practices. Thomas wrote, "To be tax exempt the activity itself must contribute to the accomplishment of the university's educational purpose (other than the production of income)."

The NCAA may be successful in putting window dressing on this decision the way it does a good many things. Its talking points will include a reference to taking the money spent on the Forum and putting it toward "directed research" that will impact NCAA policy. Nice words. But focus on what really happened here. It used to be the case that from time to time a few scholars drew the ire of NCAA officials earning those scholars labels as "critics" and "skeptics," as if a healthy ration of critical thinking and skepticism was somehow inappropriate in higher education. If this past year's colloquium is any indication, with the work of over 70 scholars and college presidents featured, the list is growing. Will the NCAA be able to dismiss them all? Will the NCAA be able to withstand the loss of tax-exempt status that could potentially come along with demonstrating so specifically that it does not uphold the values of higher education?