ESPN’s Blackistone headlines panel talk on college sports

By Stephen Hewitt

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Make no mistake about it, Kevin Blackistone loves sports, and he loves college sports too. But, he also sees glaring problems in regards to the growing commercialization of the industry.

With polarizing issues continuing to heat up in the world of collegiate sports by the second, Blackistone – who is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, national sports columnist and television personality on ESPN’s ‘Around the Horn’ – visited the Student Union Ballroom at the University of Massachusetts last night to join a roundtable panel discussion.

The discussion was put on by the Association of Diversity in Sport (ADS) called “Amateur Hour: The Commercialization of College Athletics.”

The panel – which also included UMass sports management professor Glenn Wong as its moderator in addition to Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist and NCAA director of Division I Jacqueline Campbell – tackled several different topics about growing problems in college athletics.

The discussion kicked off on the topic of conference realignment within college football and basketball. Both sports have seen a number of changes made recently as schools have moved to different conferences, which Blackistone and Zimbalist agreed are based on monetary influences.

“There seems to be now realignment around money,” Blackistone said. “This is about being in the conference that can cut you the biggest check based on the money that it brings in from television rights. The dynamic has clearly changed and it really underscores what, at the end of the day, revenue-generating college sports are all about and that’s generating the most revenue.”

Campbell looked at the realignment changes from the perspective of a student-athlete. Campbell, who played field hockey and basketball in college at the University of Virginia, said football and basketball players aren’t very affected by geographical shifts within conferences because they travel by charter planes and buses.

But student-athletes of other sports don’t have the same luxury, she said, and athletic programs have to expand their budgets to accommodate for those changes.

“Your tennis team doesn’t charter, your golf team doesn’t charter and now your conference expands geographically,” she said. “What does it mean for that sport if it doesn’t get additional dollars; do they now lose out on these extra trips to other places that they had because their conference has become so expensive to participate in?”

The conversation then shifted to the role of the student-athlete and improper benefits. An ongoing debate that has spanned decades, improper benefits has been a hot button topic in college sports that has been much analyzed.

Blackistone said the term “student-athlete” is an incorrect phrase before going on to question the notion of illegal benefits.

He said he looks at the situation at Ohio State two years ago when football players sold their own memorabilia – which included championship rings and game-worn jerseys – for money and free tattoos and wonders what the issue is in comparison to what he believes are larger issues to be talked about, such as the ongoing debate of paying college athletes for the value they bring to their schools.

“I’m more concerned about the amoral benefits of making $67 million off the backs of these guys and the NCAA is concerned about them trading their fame for a few tattoos,” he said. “I have a hard time rectifying that … it seems that sometimes the NCAA is more interested in catching the car going 26 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone than catching the Ferrari going 90 in the same zone.”

The discussion also changed to the issues of race and gender in college sports. Zimbalist mentioned that today, approximately 42 percent of college athletes are women, which is a huge increase from 1971 when it was just about nine percent. Despite the percentage climb, however, he said that there doesn’t seem to be much of a push to keep improving the number.

“I think that college athletics done properly is enormously beneficial to its participants,” Zimbalist said. “And as long as we’re going to accept the hybrid system that we have in college athletics, as long as we’re going to embrace the notion that it’s part of the educational process, then college athletics should be available equally.”

Blackistone and Campbell touched on the state of head coaching positions in college sports in regards to race and gender, respectively. Blackistone even went as far as to propose a system in which schools would be penalized for not diversifying their coaching staffs.

“Most college campuses, certainly state schools, are considered for federal funds,” Blackistone said. “I don’t see why legislators can’t threaten with the loss of federal funds if they don’t diversify their hiring process.”

Other topics discussed during the talk included athletic department spending, academics and the role of the NCAA in amateur athletics. Over 150 people attended the panel discussion as part of ADS’s annual Sports Talk Series.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected]