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March 31, 2011, 10:16 AM ET
No time for premorse

by John Gasaway

“Premorse” is the ritual moment of collective self-expiation we are told we must engage in before the big annual sporting event. It’s a compulsory national moment of acknowledgment that there are Very Serious Problems in our sport. We reflect, we shake our heads sorrowfully, and we look very grave and responsible.

And then we get back to shouting at the TV.

I am all for acknowledging Very Serious Problems in the sport we’re all about to watch. But before we deploy a phrase like “Money and March Madness,” two reminders are in order. First, this very serious problem is arguably much more serious in a certain revenue-producing college sport that is not basketball. Here’s Andy Staples, at SI.com, contrasting the way postseason revenues are distributed in hoops vs. that other sport:

This weekend, the NCAA will stage the men’s basketball Final Four, the culmination of an event that will bring in an average of $771 million a year in television money over 14 years from CBS and Turner. A fraction of that money will go to run the NCAA. The rest will go to the schools. If Butler doesn’t sell enough tickets, the school won’t have to pay. The NCAA doesn’t require schools to buy a certain number of hotel rooms; on the contrary, the NCAA pays for the hotel rooms. And it shares the largesse from the tournament with the conferences and schools.

Second, this particular Very Serious Problem is not entirely of the NCAA’s making. Here’s John Infante, from a couple weeks ago:

It was not the NCAA who made the current deal offered to student-athletes the only one available. It was the NFL and NBA who took advantage of the fact that the NCAA operates the only 18-23 year old developmental league at zero cost to the professional league it feeds athletes into in the world. If Division I athletics were not played at the level they are, it would be both unconscionable and unprofitable to both bar high schoolers from entering the professional ranks and refuse to operate a minor league focused on development.

The NCAA does indeed find itself battling a rather nasty case of philosophical incoherence. You may prefer, as the NCAA does, that college athletes be amateurs in the strictest sense of the term, and certainly there’s nothing particularly objectionable or destructive about that preference in the abstract. But if you’re going to insist upon total adherence to that preference always and in every case without exception in 2011 and indeed enforce said adherence with an investigative arm and a faux penal code, you better have a robust and above all principled rationale that will support your insistence and your efforts. The NCAA has no such rationale, perhaps because amateurism, whatever else it may be, is not really a principle. The NCAA has arrived at this point honestly and incrementally over the course of more than 100 years, and I don’t blame them or find them particularly evil for having arrived at this philosophical incoherence. But this is where they are.

In a world where college basketball has a completely different revenue model than college football, it is this philosophical incoherence and not capital-M “Money” that spreads itself wide in “college sports,” most saliently across both football and basketball. Fair enough. My proposed solution there is on the table: players should be able to strike their own deals for representation from agents, endorsements, and the like, and the NCAA should know that the world will continue to spin, just as the Olympics have continued to be the Olympics even with professional athletes competing.

I am all for the NCAA having a media-savvy leader who will give non-defensive interviews and receive a salary commensurate with what someone who runs a modestly-sized not-for-profit staffed with a few hundred employees in low-cost Indianapolis should receive. I will sign that petition, truly. And if HBO’s “Real Sports” wants to criticize that not-for-profit, again, that’s their call. But to praise a subsidiary of Time Warner for alleged journalistic courage in taking on “big money” in college sports presents us with a rather a curious case of forest v. trees.

You might think the NCAA’s $770 million-per-year TV deal and its leader’s reported $1.7 million annual salary are big money. I do too. Then again Time Warner’s annual revenues dwarf the NCAA’s, and in 2010 Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes pulled down a reported $26.3 million. Time Warner’s a for-profit entity — I’m not suggesting we confiscate their hard-won cable subscription revenue. Merely that we pause for a moment and look very grave and serious before erecting any statues to journalistic independence and courage just yet.

It’s a tribute to the NCAA’s peculiar genius for mugging common sense with bylaws that grown people have to invest effort in saying things like: family members of players in the Final Four should be able to receive a little help if they need it to attend the games. This goes without saying. But it’s a long way from here to cries of exploitation and indentured servitude. Mike DeCourcy and Seth Davis have it precisely right. If at some point in the mid-2020s one or both of my two no-longer-little boys are fortunate enough to receive a full ride at a university because they can propel some kind of ball through some kind of goal, I will be the weird old guy you see turning cartwheels down the street and wearing the t-shirt that says “PLEASE EXPLOIT MY KIDS.”

The NCAA is many things, among them a bureaucracy, investigative agency, and most importantly a place where people who went to law school can earn a living without having to work for a law firm. Most of all, though, the NCAA is a wealth-transfer mechanism. The next time you see “the NCAA receives an average of $771 million annually from its TV deal,” add the words, “and redistributes about $730 million of that.” I don’t suppose that’s particularly noble or noteworthy — hundreds of not-for-profits do the same exact thing every day. But apparently it does need to be restated. Some of the largest consumer products companies in the U.S. send a few billion dollars the NCAA’s way each decade, and that money ends up funding bachelor’s degrees at campuses all over the country. If that is where you choose to invest your indignation, have at it. If that is your scandal, I wish you well. It is not mine.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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