The NCAA is Doomed — and They Know It

With the recent ruling of the National Labor Relations Board in favor of the athletes at Northwestern, the whole order of college athletics finds itself at a tipping point unlike anything ever seen since the inception of the NCAA more than a century ago.

Currently, the vast majority of college athletes do not receive full scholarships but are still required to abide by all NCAA rules, no matter how random or inane.  Those who do receive a full ride still don’t receive enough to cover the full cost of attendance – including money for incidentals and entertainment, all needed by all students – and the player’s family is expected to pick up the slack, whether or not they can find the extra cash in their budget.

This comes at a time when the business (and I do mean business) of college athletics generates more cash than ever.  In 2012, the Pac-12 Conference signed a TV deal worth more than four billion dollars (about $25 million per school per year), while the SEC’s newest television deal is reported to be worth over $30 million per school each year.

During that time, according to University of Florida President Bernie Machen, all the new cash ”has been spent entirely on facilities and coaches’ salaries.  The amount spent on students has not increased at all after all this additional money has gone into college sports.  That’s just embarrassing.”

In a feature for “The Atlantic” in September, 2011, entitled The Shame of College Sports, Taylor Branch put it thusly:

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

One of the ironies of this situation is that this particular legal battle was started by a group of athletes at Northwestern University, one of the few remaining places where the term “student-athlete” wasn’t being used sarcastically with air quotes whenever the topic was brought up.  What you have here is a group of about 100 talented (and educated) athletes, realizing how little protection they actually have.

Kain Colter

From Video

Kain Colter

Kain Colter, former Wildcat QB and one of the faces of the lawsuit, has been quoted as saying he has nothing against the university, and that his time at the school had been great, but that he was “interested in trying to help all players — at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere.  It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.”

On its website, the National Collegiate Players Association has a list of eleven goals they are pushing for, and it’s worth noting that none of the bullet points ask explicitly for athletes to be paid by the university, though Goal #8 does seek to “eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players’ ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.”  Perhaps more importantly though, most of the goals focus on protecting the players’ health and academic scholarships.  Another goal seeks to “prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.” 

Now the NCAA has a problem, because its sole reason for existence is to effectively prevent college athletes from earning the kind of compensation they would be worth on the open market.  Once they can no longer protect athletes from the horrors and evils of being paid, they won’t have much usefulness anymore, to this observer.

The NCAA knows this, and while President Mark Emmert is busy scurrying from interview to interview putting his best spin on things, behind closed doors at headquarters in Indianapolis, the powers that be are terrified of what’s coming next.

How do I know?  Just look at the timeline of events over the past month:

  • March 27 — The NLRB rules that NU football players are employees of the university and deserve all the legal rights and protections that come with that designation.
  • April 6 — In an interview before the National Championship, UConn senior basketball star Shabazz Napier says he often goes to bed hungry, sparking outrage and controversy nationwide.  This led to discussions in the Connecticut state government about legislation to make sure athletes are properly taken care of.
  • April 16 — The NCAA approves changes to its long-standing rules on feeding athletes, stating that athletes may now receive unlimited food.

In less than a month, an absurd rule that stood for decades was abolished in response to the first real pressure the NCAA has ever seen.  Hoping the stave off the inevitable, the decision-makers at the top have generously allowed the athletes – who generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year for universities across the nation  — to be properly fed.

I’m not about to start applauding the NCAA for doing what it should have done years ago, and neither should you.

The tide of public opinion has turned decidedly against the anachronistic organization that controls college athletics, as evidenced by the epic fail that was the #AskEmmert hashtag on Twitter Friday Morning.  The NCAA President made an appearance on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning to deflect, er, I mean answer questions about the latest rule changes in college sports.

It did not go as planned — the responses included such gems as:

I believe that the top brass at NCAA headquarters can’t be naïve enough to think that this farce of a model can go on forever, but I do believe they’re intent on milking it for as long as they can.

One way they do this is to throw out the post-apocalyptic scenarios where no one outside of Alabama and Texas can afford to keep their athletic departments afloat (Think Mad Max, but with cheerleaders and an only slightly less-likeable Nick Saban).

The reality is that regardless of whether or not college athletes are ever paid an actual salary, there needs to be great changes in the power structure and representation of the NCAA.  The players who put their bodies and future at risk, especially on the football field, need to have some guarantees to insure that they won’t be saddled with the cost of taking care of themselves in case the worst happens.

There also needs to be procedures in place to deal, so that players have some recourse in the case of an abusive coach, such as former Rutgers head basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired for abusing players over a long period of time before anything ever happened.  Right now, players are effectively at the mercy of their coaches and athletic departments.

Mark Emmert has been quoted as saying that a players’ union “would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”

One can only hope.

Main photo from video.

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Alex Kirby

Alex Kirby

Alex Kirby (Writer and Football Analyst) worked several seasons as an assistant football coach at the high school and college levels and is the author of Speed Kills: Breaking Down the Chip Kelly Offense, now available HERE.

  • Anotherduck

    Well done article. If our beloved Ducks asked for better conditions during their collegiate careers I hope we’d all support their endeavor.

    • uoyeah

      Better conditions? That’s a laugh! How much better can it get? And, what if they asked for something unreasonable? You’d support them?

      The only way to eliminate the outrage and hypocrisy of college athletics is to simply get rid of scholarship sports and return to an intramural paradigm.

  • Tandaian

    We focus way too much on football and men’s basketball. Except for those two sports and a couple of women’s basketball teams, no other sport makes a school money. Each university has 296 men’s scholarships and 249 women’s scholarships they have to pay for. So, you have about 100 out of 550 scholarships that pay for themselves. The last survey of schools showed only 22 athletic departments made a profit. In other words, even making the billions/millions in TV money isn’t making schools flush in cash. Also, don’t forget that sports attracts students to attend universities. Since the Ducks have started doing well in football the last decade, the enrollment has been sky rocketing. Do coaches make too much money, probably. Do universities spend too much on facilities, probably. Do the 1% of athletes deserve to make a profit from their likeness, probably. Welcome to the real world of life not being fair.

    Shabazz going hungry is a joke. I know how meal plans work for regular students and meal plans work for athletes. He chose not to use them wisely. The cafeteria, which is all you can eat, at most universities are open to at least 8 if not 9. If you are going to bed hungry, then you either choose to go to dinner early or are staying up until 2 am. Either way, that is your choice and not the lack of food.

    Some tweaks definitely need to be made and the athletes should have a seat at the table.

    • hokieduck

      I basically agree, Tan. I do think that a full scholarship should be full and pay for everything it takes to go to school and live while doing so and provide a modest monthly stipend for the “whatevers.” I also think that walk ons deserve total access to the training table and any other facilities and training perks that a scholarship athlete has access to.

      That said, these kids have opened a Pandora’a Box that may surprise them greatly. Right now, the revenue sports subsidize or pay for all the other sports teams, men’s and women’s, at these universities. Most of these kids actually *are* student-athletes and, for many, their scholarships are what allow them access to the greatest social equalizer, education. If these kids unionize and become employees one or both of two things will transpire.

      One, universities will simply cut out all non-revenue producing sports and make them club sports. No scholarships will be given for anything other than football and men’s and women’s basketball (Title IX). These 100 kids will be paid. Everyone else, including coaches, will greatly suffer.

      Two, the IRS will come a callin’ pronto. The annual value of an education (especially for out of state kids) will be valued and all the amenities will be valued such as unlimited training table food, medical care, maybe even trips, transportation. And then, of course, their salaries will be taxed. This is unless Congress can legislate an exception for college scholarships (and good luck on that score in today’s Congress). Right now, the out of state cost of tuition, room, board and books (maybe) according to the UO website is over $43,000 and that is for regular students without all the amenities mentioned above are added in. The tax bill to the parents is going to be a bit more onerous than picking up the tab for the “slack” in today’s scholarship money.

      Finally, the NCAA *is* a bully and has run roughshod for years in the most arrogant of ways. I hope that a middle ground will be reached in this mess, but our society has become very “me” and “it’s all about the Benjamins” oriented, the result of which we see in these entitled kids who have a way over-inflated sense of their own skills and importance. All it takes to see that is to watch kids leave programs early to “take their skills to the next level” only to find out that they are *nothing* when it comes to a true business model. Unfortunately, by that tie, they no longer have a free option for education and are left holding the bag of big unrealized dreams and hearing the far-off roars of crowds telling them how important they used to be.

      Very sad all around.

      • hokieduck

        Also, no question kids are already getting paid, especially in the SEC (and I am not SEC-bashing here). I grew up in the South. It was unspoken and known. Here is a great article called The Bag Man written about this subject.

        Paying a modest stipend might alleviate a little of the impetus for the bag men. Not the Cam Newton kind of payments, but the “slip $100 in the handshake” kinds of payments.