CRAWFORD | NCAA must get back to its basics to survive latest scandals
Eric Crawford on problems facing the NCAA, and the dwindling possible solutions.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The NCAA is not a bad idea. It just, like many modern organizations, hasn’t adapted well to having a lot of money.
The idea for the NCAA was born back in 1905 out of one purpose – to protect the players. Teddy Roosevelt, then President of the United States, was appalled at reading about so many football-related deaths, as most Americans were. He liked the physical competition, but it wasn’t unusual for teams in those days to target the best players on an opponent’s roster and seek to injure them on purpose.
The game wasn’t just dangerous; it was deadly. A Chicago Tribune editorial in 1905 called college football “the death harvest.” Against that backdrop, Roosevelt called several university leaders to the White House, and that began a discussion that culminated in the founding of an organization that would become the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Fast forward 113 years. The NCAA is still around, but its founding principle seems to have gone the way of the peach basket and the drop-kick. Today, it is less about protecting the players than it is about preserving its profits.
In this, it has the full aid, if not the full compliance, of its member institutions, who share in the revenues the NCAA receives and distributes. They, in fact, have devised this system we have, in which “amateurism” is held up as a lofty ideal, while the universities and NCAA, which champion that ideal, share millions of dollars in revenue generated by those amateur competitions.
EVERYBODY MAKES MONEY (ALMOST)
Everybody makes money. The NCAA employs a large staff and its president, Mark Emmert, makes better than $1.5 million per year. Big-time coaches make money, and their staffs. Athletics department employees make money. Media organizations, which pay millions for the rights to NCAA events, make money. Everybody is making money.
Well, lots of individuals are making money. Fewer than 20 NCAA Division I institutions actually turn a profit on athletics. The secret that is slowly entering the light of day at most schools is that for all of their visibility, big-time college sports are making lots of money for some of the people they employ but little to nothing for the universities whose names they bear.
And certainly, nothing for the athletes who play the games, who are allowed to receive tuition, room, board and books, but little more and, in the case of most non-revenue sports, far, far less.
Into that backdrop last week broke some stories that left college sports purists appalled and longtime college sports observers unsurprised. The ledgers of just one agent purport that his agency regularly has dropped varying sums of money on top high school prospects around the country in the hope of signing some once they turn professional.
For most students, this wouldn’t be a big deal. In fact, a great many high school students today hire someone to represent them as they navigate the college decision process, help with essays, submit applications and search for scholarships.
For most students, that’s a service for which you have to pay. For elite athletes, agents are happy to represent you. They’ll give you money. They’ll approach college coaches to give you money. They’ll work with shoe companies and line up your endorsement. Like the other high school kids looking for a college, you’ll wind up paying for this service, and a much higher price than the regular kids pay. But you might also make much more money.
“Kids deserve advisers as they’re moving through this process,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on Tuesday, and he’s right.
Maybe the NCAA doesn't want kids having advisers, because they'll be advised that they're being used.
Because the NCAA and its member schools want to protect their own revenues, they must insist on the amateurism ideal. If you take money from an agent, you’re not eligible to play college sports. If you take money from a shoe company, you’re not eligible. Let someone buy you a meal? Better declare yourself eligible and let the NCAA reinstate you. Take money from a coach? You’re not eligible, and the coach will be fired if caught.
It’s not because the schools will lose money if an agent pays you, or if you strike a deal with a shoe company for your post-college career, or even if someone lends you money against the day you score a big professional contract. It’s because the NCAA can’t have YOU making money, because IT wants to make the money.
It wants to sell a jersey with your number on it, and keep all the money. It will tell you that it takes all these revenues and shares them with its member institutions for its “educational mission.” And a great deal of it, the NCAA does share.
But those member institutions in turn spend it on coach’s salaries or fancy locker rooms or more administrative staff.
In recent years, the NCAA has relented, because of player pressure, to allow more of that money to trickle to students in the way of full cost of attendance for elite athletes, or meals for players year-round.
What the NCAA has not done is allow schools to give as many scholarships for, say, baseball, as there are players on a baseball team. So you have the majority of players on any given college team paying to play the game, while the NCAA and college conferences increasingly sell media rights for their games.
In my mind, the greatest single sign that the NCAA isn’t at all about players is that every, single NCAA sport is not fully funded from a scholarship standpoint. Most top-level athletic programs could do this. Pay the tuition, at least, of every athlete. But they don’t want to do it. If you’re having to pay the tuition of every athlete, that’s less money to play with. You might not be able to build your latest round of luxury suites.
In the 1980s, college football leaders saw the money that there was to be made from their game and sued the NCAA to get control of the television rights from their sport. Since then, the NCAA has had little to do with college football or its postseason. Instead, the NCAA’s cash cow is the men’s basketball tournament. Most of the NCAA’s budget comes from the TV revenues it generates.
COLLEGE BASKETBALL ON THE EDGE
Now, college basketball is under fire. The FBI is investigating a big-time shoe company executive who was working a scheme with an agent, a financial planner and various NCAA assistant (and perhaps some head) coaches to funnel money from his shoe company to players in exchange for a commitment to go to a certain school and wear a certain shoe upon turning professional, as well as signing with a certain agent and using a certain financial planner. Top salaries in the NBA being what they are, if only a few players went along with this, all of the individuals involved could make money.
It’s all, of course, against NCAA rules, and some of it might well be against federal law. But mainly, it’s against NCAA rules, because, of course, players are getting paid, and we can’t have that.
Some are saying these shoe companies and agents are exploiting athletes. Here in Louisville, the local newspaper actually referred to the practice of agents or shoe companies giving athletes money as “a trap.” Would that we all find such traps in the near future. In my mind, they’re at least paying these players and working on their behalf.
What about the NCAA? It is generating millions in revenue yet telling players they aren’t even entitled to a piece of their jersey sales. The NCAA points to its “educational mission,” but when a sports power like North Carolina is caught offering fake classes that don’t require attendance or, really, anything else, the NCAA stands silently by and does nothing. And if that can happen at a good school like North Carolina, what must be going on at some of these others?
If the NCAA were really about that educational mission, would it be playing 9 p.m. ESPN games on weeknights and subjecting players to quick travel turnarounds during the school semester?
I will say this – somewhere along the line, the educational process must have done its job, because players have become less willing to put up with the status quo.
And there’s no viable alternative. Send your high school graduate to Europe for a year? Straight to the NBA? No, can’t do that, NBA rules. You want talk about traps? The NCAA seems like a pretty good one.
The time is coming when the NCAA must come to terms with this. Pat Forde, the Louisville resident, former Courier-Journal columnist and current national columnist for Yahoo! Sports who helped break the bombshell stories last week, told WDRB on Tuesday, “I think there's a chance this is the beginning of a real sea change in how college basketball and college sports in general approaches its business, what the rules are, who enforces the rules, what the penalties are."
In one of those little coincidences, I was digging around in my basement over the weekend and came across an old stack of newspapers. Right in the middle of it was a stack of stories from The Courier-Journal from Valentine’s Day, 1999. The series was called, “Summer Madness: Is Basketball Recruiting Out of Control?” It focused on shoe companies, agents, runners and the game that enabled them. It was written by Pat Forde.
Maybe this time is different. If it is, it’s only because the players, the students, are different. If they are, it's about time. It's past time. This organization has protected its own backside for too long with too little regard for the students. The situation with Michigan State, with a sexual predator on campus and a president of the organization not demanding action, is painfully, tragically illustrative. Maybe the the players, the students, are tired of it. If that truly is the case, then this time will be different.
Nobody is more cut-throat when it comes to corporate greed than the NCAA. You can’t walk onto the court at the NCAA Tournament without having your drink in the proper corporate cup. Every logo is tightly approved. Maybe at long last, players have learned this NCAA lesson -- it really is all about the money. If so, this time will be different.
How much of a slice the players should get is a matter of some debate. If you put a guy into a University of Kentucky basketball uniform and have him play games in Rupp Arena, he’ll become a celebrity and play in front of 24,000 fans every night. But put the same guy in an NBA G-League jersey and run him out there, and you might see a few thousand in the stands, even fewer wearing his jersey, and not enough people in an autograph line to slow him down on the way to the car.
If these players start to test the true marketplace, they’ll learn pretty quickly that it is about the name on the front of the jersey, at least a little bit. Throw “U of L” on their uniforms and it’s traffic jams at the KFC Yum! Center. Throw Louisville Semipro Somethingorothers and it’s a smattering of hoops junkies.
BACK TO BASICS
I’d just like to see the NCAA get back to what it was supposed to be about in the first place – protecting players. It’s about seeing that they have rights. The NCAA is fond of talking about education, and a big part of education lies in learning what you are worth, as an individual with talent, and in the marketplace, for good or ill.
“It's their names and likeness," Calipari said. "It's not ours. It's theirs. They should be able to make money. Maybe the school manages it, maybe the money goes to their parents for travel."
Or maybe they just get the money. There’s some concern that, if that happens, a dozen or so of the biggest programs will begin to dominate. If that were to happen, interest in the game would lag. Some limits and regulations would have to be put in place from the start, others would evolve, or the game would wither and fade.
And not all players would get money. We're not talking about the NCAA paying players, we're talking about the NCAA allowing players to make money.
"This isn't communism," Calipari said. "If you can't get a home loan, guess what? You can't get it. I don't know what to tell you. 'I demand it because he got a home loan.' I'm sorry. That's not how it works in our country. So kids that have pro potential and want to take a loan so that their families don't have to deal with it. Why can't you?"
At this point, why can't they? The fact is, it's happening anyway. Over the next year or so, between an FBI investigation and subsequent court proceedings, we're about to find out how much.
Whatever the case, it’s time for the NCAA to recognize that a new day has dawned, and that the best thing it can do is that thing it was conceived to do so long ago: Safeguard the well-being of its players.
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