Debate over antiquated NCAA goes way beyond pay-for-play

Friday September 27th, 2013

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said this week that if college athletes didn't like the current system they could go play somewhere else, but he missed the larger point.
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Jim Delany went on a bit of a rant this week. Well, rant isn't really fair. The Big Ten commissioner's comments had a certain logic to them. He told several reporters, including one from ESPN, that he intensely opposes paying college athletes, and that if players don't like what college athletic departments offer, they can hire an agent and work with a trainer to prepare for the pros.

"Why is it our job to be minor leagues for professional sports?" Delany asked.

This is an interesting philosophical question.

Also, it is irrelevant.

This is not a philosophy class, and pay-for-play is not under serious discussion right now. That's a dodge. It's a clever way to change the subject. Did you see those players who wrote "APU" on their wristbands last week, for All Players United? That idea is being pushed by Ramogi Huma, the president of the National Collegiate Players Association. And as Huma told me last week: "We've never advocated for professional salaries."

No, the issue is not that colleges should be paying players. That's an interesting debate, but it's not on the table.

The problem with the pay-for-play argument is that is all-or-nothing. Schools either go A) to the professional model, or B) keep doing what they have been doing for a century.

But there is an ocean of room between A and B. And that's why players, lawyers, activists and elected officials are approaching the NCAA, ammunition in hand.


The enterprise of college sports is under attack from several angles. There is the burgeoning NCPA movement. There is a bill in Congress called the NCAA Accountability Act. There is another bill in California, pushed by Assembly member (and longtime civil rights activist) Cheryl R. Brown, who told me the NCAA is "a modern plantation system". And of course, there is the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, which has gotten most of the publicity.

None of those attacks is designed to create a pay-for-play system. Even if the O'Bannon suit is successful, it would likely just divert third-party payments to players for the use of their likenesses. It would not require schools to pay athletes. Pay-for-play is not the issue.

The issue is that the NCAA operates as a cartel. Schools collude to prevent players from seeking compensation anywhere. The NCAA prevents players from getting paid by third parties. There is ample evidence that athletic scholarships do not cover the full cost of attending a university.

Schools treat the revenue side of their operation like a business -- scheduling games wherever and whenever they can maximize their income. Then they claim that the cost side of the operation is purely about education. Worse, they claim that their ability to educate hinges on players not accepting any money.

"To try to pretend there is some moral reason to keep players completely in poverty ... this is America," Huma says. "We have a capitalistic nation. You would be hard-pressed to find any other group of Americans who are denied the right to go out and get their fair value."

If Delany is so incredibly worried about schools becoming like professional franchises, why do so many of them act like professional franchises? Why do they restrict players from transferring where they want, and force them to sit out a year even if they do transfer? Why do so many coaches pull players' scholarships simply because those players turned out not to be so good?

If these athletic scholarships are primarily about education, why don't they cover the entire length of a student-athlete's college years? Why do they have to be renewed annually?

If the NCAA is so worried about the brains of their student-athletes, then explain this: According to The Washington Times, NCAA director of enforcement Chris Strobel declared in 2010 that "it would not be appropriate" to penalize a coach for sending a player back on the field with a concussion.

If schools aren't in the professional sports business, why do they abandon longstanding rivalries so they can make more money? Why do they spend millions to buy out the contracts of coaches who aren't winning?

Should a chunk of that money go to the players? Yes, I think it should. But that isn't the point right now. Schools can do a much, much better job of being fair to the athletes who bring in all that money.

This is why the NCAA Accountability Act is designed to guarantee multiyear scholarships and require baseline concussion tests for athletes in contact sports.

This is why Brown sponsored California bill AB-475. It's a remarkably simple and sensible bill. It would require schools like UCLA and Cal-Berkeley to guarantee scholarships for five years, to cover the cost of summer school, and to give each student-athlete an additional $3,600 stipend. It would only cover public universities in California that have media and licensing revenue in excess of $20 million a year, so forget the old NCAA canard about hurting the smaller schools. This would make the big boys act like big boys.

Brown is not trying to turn college quarterbacks into millionaires. But she has heard from "a lot of people who like the bill, people who were caught up in the system." She wants the schools that talk about student-athletes to take better care of those students.

AB-475 is especially interesting because it could ultimately prove just how much power the NCAA doesn't have. Consider what happens if it passes next year:

Schools can obey the law by paying the stipend, but that would mean violating NCAA rules. Or they can obey NCAA rules, but that would mean violating California law.

I mentioned this to Brown, and she said: "The NCAA, isn't that a nonprofit organization?" In other words: What legal power does the NCAA have over the government of California?

I asked Huma what happens if AB-475 passes (which is a long way off, by the way). He said: "At that point, it goes to the courts and NCAA cartel is broken. That is the endgame on that."


The recent Arian Foster "controversy" says so much about the backwards NCAA values system -- and how we accept it instinctively because it has been around for so long.

Foster was interviewed for the outstanding upcoming documentary "Schooled: The Price of College Sports," which premieres on the EPIX channel Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. (Full disclosure: I appear in the film. But I was not paid, I have no stake in its financial success, and to reassure you about any conflict of interest, I hereby remove myself from Oscar consideration.)

Foster said the following things happened when he played at Tennessee: He and some teammates got free tacos from a coach when they said they were hungry; he took some money on the side when he was a senior; and oh, by the way: A LOT OF HIS TEAMMATES WERE SELLING DRUGS BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T HAVE MONEY.

That whole drug dealing thing kind of got lost in the reaction, because the NCAA has convinced us the real scandal is getting some extra money from boosters, or getting a royalty check for appearing in a video game.

The NCAA has sold that line for so many years, we sometimes forget that we buy it. But times are changing. Skyrocketing coaching salaries and massive realignment helped change public perception; as Huma says, "That is a strong line that they crossed in terms of pretending this is about amateur athletics."

For years, people were scared to challenge the system because of fan backlash. But more and more fans realize how unfair the system is. Fans donate big money to athletic departments for the right to pay big money for season tickets to home games, even as the biggest games move to neutral sites anyway, because that's where the biggest revenue is. They know this is a business. They are funding it.

This gives lawmakers hope that they can pass common-sense legislation. It gives lawyers confidence they can win the O'Bannon suit. It gives athletes the confidence to write "All Players United" on their wristbands. A generation ago, athlete protests were limited to a few wacky characters like Oklahoma outlaw linebacker Brian Bosworth. Now the protests are being driven by some of the smartest players, like Northwestern's Academic All-Big Ten quarterback, Kain Colter.

"One thing that is for sure: If players are too quiet, nothing is going to happen," Huma says.

Administrators can pontificate all they'd like. At some point, they will have to deal with the real world in 2013. Delany, to his credit, has said that the system is antiquated. As one of the most powerful people in college sports, he should lead the charge to change it.

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