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September 19, 2011

The Rest of the NCAA

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:24 pm

I spent my early Saturday morning flying to Phoenix, and though the reason was professional sports, I decided to theme my entertainment on the flight around the trouble with amateurism. I brought along my College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 to reread, including my colleague John Gasaway’s essay of the same name, then used the in-flight wifi (one of man’s most impressive accomplishments) to dig into Taylor Branch‘s exhaustive “The Shame of College Sports” from The Atlantic.

Just like Gasaway, I found Branch’s research to be an invaluable addition to the existing NCAA literature, but felt he slightly misstepped with his conclusions. In fact, I think Branch gave the NCAA a bit of room to take an unlikely moral high ground. Something was missing from the nearly 15,000 words Branch wrote, and that something is what the NCAA often loves to remind you about amidst the sea of advertisements CBS sells during its coverage of March Madness: Nearly all NCAA athletes are going pro in something other than sports.

Branch tried, but ultimately could not resist the slavery metaphor to explain the NCAA. I have always found that particular comparison lacking. No, the more apt explanation for the NCAA’s activity is the communist ideology as best defined by the Soviet Union.

On paper, college sports are socialist: Revenue produced from each student-athlete according to ability goes to a broader spectrum of them based on need. As Gasaway noted in his essay, it’s fortunate that the NCAA is benevolent, if only out of obligation. A wide variety of non-revenue sports are the biggest beneficiaries of the huge sums captured by elite football and basketball teams.

Let’s be clear that this doesn’t in any way justify the many abuses of power Branch details, which explain why the appropriate metaphor is communism and not socialism. As in Soviet Russia, some members of the NCAA are more equal than others. These are the administrators who are in fact profiting from someone else’s work, and they have no particular interest in seeing the system change to their own detriment. As with slavery, it’s inappropriate to compare the worst of communism’s abuses to the NCAA system. No college players are becoming unpersons. Still, the lack of individual rights and due process are shared between the two.

Branch’s most provocative conclusion is that the NCAA has never had any particular legal standing explaining its right to exist and operate as it does. Should college presidents decide enough is enough, a new organization could easily spring up in its place, one that does more than pay lip service to the role of student-athletes in their own governance. If such an organization found a way to fairly compensate the star athletes in basketball and football who would generate most of its revenue–say, distributing the rights fees to video games to players in those sports, or giving each player a share of the proceeds from sales of their jerseys–it would be much more just, but not better for all student-athletes.

In a world where these top athletes are bringing home something close to their actual value, non-revenue sports would be irreparably altered if not die. This scenario is complicated by the continued existence of Title IX. To comply with proportionality, it’s difficult to see how any male sports besides basketball and football, with the latter’s enormous rosters and no female equivalent, could survive. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing or a good thing. It’s probably safe to assume that players in non-revenue sports come from wealthier backgrounds than their hoops- and football-playing peers, given the cost of becoming elite in sports like tennis and lacrosse. In practice, the NCAA isn’t really distributing according to need.

There’s also a certain danger that traditionalist NCAA forces seize on this argument as a rationale for maintaining the status quo. This is their opening to dismiss Branch’s damaging research. That is not my intent. The way the NCAA operates, and particularly the archaic convention of amateurism, must change. But the entire NCAA, not just moneymaking basketball and football, has to be part of any discussion. Otherwise, we’re missing a key part of the picture–and using the wrong metaphors.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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