Opinion

Burn, baby, burn: The death throes of the NCAA and the lies for which it stands.

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice

This week brought us two seemingly separate stories from the world of college football that have everything to do with one another. First, the potential game-changer: the Chicago branch of the National Labor Relations Board found that the football players of Northwestern qualify as “employees” under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act, which clears a hurdle to their unionization, ushering in the specter of collective bargaining. The NCAA, over the unmistakable sound of Mark Emmert hyperventilating into a paper bag, immediately screeched its disapproval, insisting that college athletes are students rather than employees.

Unfortunately for the NCAA, its wailing was also insufficient to drown out the revelation of yet another academic scandal, this time (and once again) at the African and African-American Studies department of the University of North Carolina and its …err, cozy… relationship with the university’s football and basketball athletes. A Tar Heel’s admittedly coherent (though that’s not hard to achieve in a single paragraph) retelling of the Wikipedia entry for Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat apparently received an A- as a final examination. Not the best timing for that whole ‘players are students first’ argument. And if you think that this is a North Carolina problem and not an “almost every school in the NCAA” problem, I have a bridge to sell you.

We can set the “employee” designation aside for a bit, but can’t we now agree that this entire “amateur student-athlete” thing is an outright farce? Is there anyone in America who still can’t see this racket for what it is who isn’t also on the NCAA’s payroll?

When the most hated corporation in America walks into a courtroom and says with a straight face that the virtual University of Florida’s white quarterback, who wears number 15, stands 6’3, weighs 235 pounds, throws left-handed, and grew up in Florida is not in any way intended to represent the real University of Florida’s white quarterback Tim Tebow, who wore number 15,  stands 6’3, weighs 235 pounds, throws left-handed, and grew up in Florida, is there even an inkling in your mind that it’s anything but an avalanche of nonsense?

Were you to have walked into the University of Oklahoma’s bookstore in 2006 and seen the clothing racks covered with #28 jerseys, is there a single person that would be persuaded for one second that the university, the NCAA, and its apparel providers weren’t exploiting Adrian Peterson’s likeness?

I can hear you now: “OK, so it’s laughably disingenuous. We all know that. But the players get free tuition, hero status around campus (and maybe the country), and that’s enough. So what?”

But if there is nothing wrong with that deception, then what’s the point in maintaining it? If what the NCAA, schools, TV networks, advertisers, and corporate partners are up to here isn’t immoral, then why do they take such great pains to insist they’re doing anything else? And why do we insist on collectively letting them shovel it down our throats? If you want to argue that all of this is morally defensible, be my guest, but at least have the huevos to acknowledge that this entire infrastructure is presented behind the most ridiculous façade imaginable, and acknowledge that by continuing to pretend it’s anything else we’re helping to perpetuate it. If we all know the truth, then who exactly are we humoring by agreeing to pretend otherwise?

Every time you watch some corporate-sponsored bowl game only to be forced to listen to the CEO of Soylent Corp. discuss how much he loves watching those nutritious youngsters play, don’t you wonder how much that sponsorship cost them? When you hear about the new quintillion dollar SEC TV deal, don’t you wonder where the money goes? Don’t you wonder what the hell Mark Emmert does that’s worth $1.7 million a year?

I played this game for two athletically-challenged, injury-filled seasons. That doesn’t exactly recommend me as the world’s foremost authority on college football, but it does mean that I know that the NCAA’s 20 hour a week limit is actually more like 60. I know that voluntary workouts aren’t voluntary. I know how well-intentioned tutors, advisors, and even professors can be starstruck (or, just as often, guilt-tripped) into greasing the academic wheels of the institution to keep guys eligible and on track (though I also know that many such people resent athletes and hold their status against them as well). But most of all I know how a bunch of great, talented kids who have been exploited their entire lives, many of whom can barely read or write, are being cheated by this charade, which we all tacitly agree to suspend our disbelief about.

So what can we do? There are obvious solutions to the problem that are foreclosed from discussion simply for the sake of maintaining this ridiculous narrative:

Even while acknowledging that a lot of the NCAA’s pleadings of poverty are unadulterated nonsense, it would be very easy to allow players to receive a cut of their worth without raiding university athletic budgets simply by repealing the rules that forbid athletes from earning endorsements and third party gifts. Nobody thinks Peyton Manning showing up in a Papa John’s commercial threatens the integrity of the NFL, why should it be any different for college players? Admittedly that leaves less talented players relatively out in the cold, but no worse than they are currently. And the simple fact of the matter is that the guy who is worth tens of millions to the university has a better claim on that cash than the scout teamer nobody pays to see.

And is there really that great a distinction between Phil Knight and T. Boone Pickens buying things like this and just flat out paying the players? Is there a difference between Nick Saban walking into a kid’s house and promising him NFL millions and walking into his house with actual money? You may say that such a change would put the rich programs at an advantage, but you’d have a hard time arguing that isn’t already the case. You could also argue that such a system would allow bad actors to influence outcomes, but as a Miami Hurricane I would submit to you that it’s the black market for player compensation that lures the scumbags out of their holes. Tainted money is much more attractive in a system where legitimate money is forbidden.

Another solution would be for the NFL to develop its own farm league, and to offer tuition guarantees to high school signees so they would be free to pursue their NFL careers with the safety net of a free college education if the whole thing falls apart (or during the off season). If we’re really concerned about the academic interests of these kids, and not just using that as an excuse to maintain this corrupt system, then this model makes a lot more sense. In the current system, a kid who walks on campus and tears his ACL may not only lose his football career, but jeopardizes his scholarship as well. That wouldn’t be the case in a farm system that guaranteed tuition independent of athletic performance.

Obviously the NFL is disinclined to start paying for a farm system it’s always gotten for free, but it sure seems like the NFL might be in need of some goodwill these days, and that would be a great start. And, as unbelievable as it sounds, the specter of collective bargaining in NCAA football really could be a death knell to the game and the NFL would obviously be compelled to fill the gap. Baseball, hockey, and soccer have gotten this model to work just fine, there’s no reason the NFL couldn’t do the same and, in doing so, decouple the farcically unnecessary forced pairing of “academic scholar” and “professional athlete.” What does getting a liberal arts degree have to do with playing football or basketball, again?

Are NCAA athletes employees? I guess we’ll have to wait for the courts to tell us. But regardless of the answer to that question, this farce has gone on long enough.  Whether through continued litigation and collective bargaining or through some massive moral awakening in the market, something has to change. We’ve all had our fun with this pleasant little fiction; it’s time to stop pretending and finally acknowledge the damage it’s doing. We wouldn’t be shamelessly lying to ourselves and to each other if the truth wasn’t hurting anyone.

Note: Adam Bates was a walk-on center/longsnapper for the Miami Hurricanes from 2003-05. After graduating from Miami, he went on to earn a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies and a law degree from the University of Michigan.