The NCAA is the most criticized governing entity in American sports. The fact that it may also be the most praiseworthy such body presents no contradiction. The NCAA's just that peculiar.
Surely the NCAA is commendable for its acumen, pulling down $770 million each year for a men's basketball tournament that it more or less built from scratch. And certainly they earn high marks for rectitude, redistributing some $730 million of that revenue annually. (Only a benighted NCAA could be ritually accused of greed while writing out checks equivalent to 95 percent of its annual revenue.) Most of all, however, the NCAA is adrift and unmoored conceptually.
Requirements are fine if they have a reason
Intercollegiate sports have been with us since 1852, and the NCAA's been around for about 100 of those years. Regarding the question of how these sports should be conducted, it seems to me that at root NCAA has two options:
1. Roll the ball out and let the players play, pursuant only to the rules of the game and the discretion of the players' respective schools.
2. Require something more of the players system-wide.
The prize behind door number 1 comprises a perfectly defensible and indeed commendably tidy position, one that's been proposed most eloquently by Jay Bilas. As it happens I disagree with Jay in this one instance, but I'll be the first to admit that if we switched to his model tomorrow you'd see a lot of more or less benign "scandals" disappear in an instant.
Be that as it may I'm an unreconstructed believer in model 2, so I face a formidable challenge. The NCAA agrees with me. (Yet another stay-off-my-side moment.) Fine, I accept the challenge. The problem with model 2 isn't intrinsic, it's what the NCAA has chosen to do with it.
The "something more" the NCAA requires is that players receive no compensation beyond a scholarship and money for room, board, and books. The NCAA says theirs is a Principled stance with a capital "P," while I've been at some pains to suggest that whatever else amateurism may be it is not truly a principle.
Wisdom in acronyms
If anything's led the NCAA astray it's been the belief that they're in the business of amateur sports. Actually the NCAA is, or should be, in the business of college sports. They are the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Colleges don't care if their students receive outside compensation, with good reason. Whether they do or not is immaterial. Most people would regard acquiring an education as rather more important than putting a ball through a hoop, yet no one's ever had the chutzpah to claim there's an "ideal of the amateur student."
It never would have occurred to Harvard or anyone else to have "compliance" staff investigate Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 on the grounds that he may have been earning money from that new website of his. John Wooden, for one, earned money as a professional athlete in 1932 while he was still an undergraduate at Purdue (after he had exhausted his athletic eligibility). Somehow the world kept spinning.
Instead of clinging to a desiccated mandate of amateurism, the NCAA should require that players system-wide meet a somewhat higher academic standard than what's been set forth previously. Instead of policing amateurism's borders obsessively and enforcing amateurism punitively, the NCAA should promote the value of combining an education with doing what you love athletically. That's a mission worthy of a national collegiate athletic association in 2011. And if money materializes from an outside party like an agent or advertiser, so be it.
To label this a reform would be misleading. Reforms have to be articulated, instituted, and enforced, but in this instance all that's required of the NCAA is simply that it release its tenacious and instinctive grip and align itself with normality. The real question is why this alignment hasn't happened already. It very easily could have. The NCAA's often criticized as bureaucratic, but compared to a global behemoth like the International Olympic Committee the small organization in Indianapolis with just a few hundred staffers is a nimble mom-and-pop operation. Yet even the Byzantine and sclerotic IOC has long since made its peace with reality. It is past time for the NCAA to do the same.
Last year I asked the following question:
What are the tangible benefits to student-athletes of a blanket prohibition on any kind of compensation from any source?
This past May I repeated my question and heard plenty of fretting that removing said prohibition will visit football-style competitive imbalance on college basketball. (I'm not so sure about that.) But I am yet to hear anyone defend this prohibition solely or indeed even primarily on the grounds of student welfare.
So what I'm proposing falls under the following assumption:
There is no tangible benefit to student-athletes in a blanket prohibition on compensation.
The NCAA should be in the business of asking itself what's in the best interest of its student-athletes. And what I'm proposing is simply that the NCAA align itself with its student-athletes -- all of them, even the stars in revenue sports -- rather than with inertia and a routine that dates from the Taft administration.
Here's what a conceptually sound and student-athlete-centered NCAA funded by a jewel of a men's basketball tournament might look like in 2011.
Declare the NCAA tournament a national park
1. Athletes will be required to meet a slightly higher academic standard than what's been mandated previously.
2. Athletes will be permitted to strike deals with outside parties like agents and advertisers. The NCAA can place boundaries on those deals, of course. Maybe you have to put a semester of successful classwork under your belt first. Maybe advertisers are treated differently than agents. Let experience find that sweet spot.
3. Beyond hitting a required GPA and not being paid by or on behalf of their schools, athletes will find fewer occasions to run afoul of the rules. As recruits they'll be able to field calls, texts, or anything else from anyone at anytime. As students they'll be able to enter into contracts just like any legal adult. The NCAA will locate every copy of its Bylaws, that great metastasizing in-house Book of Leviticus, and consign them all to recycling bins. The organization's animating regulatory impulse will migrate to its academic clearinghouse.
4. The NCAA tournament will be declared the sports equivalent of a national park. This doesn't mean the tournament will be frozen as is. (For one thing the number of timeouts needs to be reduced. Yesterday.) It does mean we need a basketball-centered preserve within a football-driven conversation. Clemenceau said war's too important to be left to the generals. Well, the tournament's too important to be left to lawyers preoccupied with football, be they athletic directors or conference commissioners. If you don't believe me look at "Legends and Leaders."
That's not to say there's anything wrong with rendering unto football what is football's. Superconferences may arise, and soon. Fine. The Big 12 might go away. Whatever you say, football. Who knows, maybe someday football will have a real national champion. That would be great. And all this time the national championship in men's basketball will continue to be determined by a 60-some-team tournament drawn from a pool of two- to three-hundred-some member schools. That tournament is achingly close to perfection as a sporting event. It's also the NCAA's cash cow, one that funds bachelor's degrees for young men and women all over the country. It would merit high walls and a wide moat on either count.
Seen in this light the cost-of-attendance discussion (whether or not student-athletes should receive an additional nine dollars a day or so) is a peripheral matter. Basically whatever level of support a national association of schools agrees to provide to all of their student-athletes -- male and female, revenue and non-revenue alike -- is, by definition, acceptable and indeed non-controversial to the point of boredom, just as long as it's not a football-driven decision that screws up college basketball. True, maybe this means some schools will have to drop some sports. Or maybe some schools will drop out of Division I basketball. That may be what it takes to get scholarship athletes their nine bucks a day.
There's nothing pre-ordained or ideal about the current number of sports played at a given university, the current size of Division I, or even the current alignment of the major conferences. Those have always been elastic properties. Navigating the elasticity means asking which principle should animate our choices going forward. I nominate transferring our attention and efforts from the preservation of amateurism and the policing of its frontiers to the development of student-athletes.
In defense of pampered star athletes...and our Grandpa Simpson response to them
The alternative is to keep doing what we're doing. If we go that route let's at least be consistent. I'm proud to announce I've discovered an "ideal of the amateur coach." Compared to the thin and meager history behind that wobbly and dubious model of the amateur athlete, I can footnote my exciting new ideal something fierce, citing precedents dating back to Socrates. Henceforth coaches will receive no outside compensation, no endorsement deals, no fees from speaking engagements, nothing. Schools can pay for a coach's room and board and a few other incidental expenses, but that's it. After all, college sports are not about the coaches. How many people do you think would come out to see John Calipari coach a bunch of D-league players? He should thank his lucky stars he's the head coach at one of the most visible programs in the country. That should be reward enough. If not, there's the door. That's what professional coaching is for.
The question is not whether student-athletes already have a sweet gig. Of course they do. The question is whether we will continue to devote great expenditures of effort and time to propping up an investigative regime that by its nature has always been and will always be both officiously intrusive and more or less ineffective. Certainly it's nice when star athletes in revenue sports show us they are conscious of their blessings. But when those stars are not appropriately thankful they, like their coaches, should earn our heartiest opprobrium, not our most antiquated and arbitrary prohibitions.
If there were truly something vital at stake in maintaining amateurism in its strictest sense everywhere and in every instance, the NCAA would be fine as is. We can support great expenditures of effort and time if it's important enough. But amateurism antedates the NCAA and will survive just fine without the oraginzation's care and feeding. If the NCAA must be doctrinaire let it be doctrinaire on behalf of students and not amateurs. Student-athletes of differing degrees of amateur standing are all equally important. Until the NCAA understands that, the need for strategic discussions about the future of Division I athletics will continue indefinitely.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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