The Atlantic, the NCAA and the wrong discussion

By now, you’ve probably seen at least three of your friends Tweet or share The Atlantic’s sprawling expose, The Shame of College Sports.

My question: Was anyone else disappointed? Is anyone else worried that the wrong issues are emphasized?

A lot of effort went into reporting this story, and it touches on several issues that rarely see the light of day. The NCAA comes across as a petty organization, consumed with power, that aims to destroy the careers of anyone who dares to question nonsensical rules. The cases are shocking and should be fodder for follow-up discussion.

But reporter Taylor Branch digresses from this damning expose to pontificate about amateurism and offer simplistic solutions for paying players. And in doing so, he doesn’t address the fact that most schools with football programs actually are NOT making money on sports, and many of them are losing money on football alone. See for yourself. And it doesn’t help that the bowl system is a gravy train for all the wrong people.

So most schools’ athletic departments are accomplishing two things. First, they’re enhancing the prestige of the school, giving students more reason to attend and alumni more reason to donate. My alma mater’s rise to national prominence came partly through a slow-moving movement to enhance and advertise its academic stature, but the 1986 Final Four team of Dawkins, Bilas, Alarie and company turned that slow growth into an outright boom.

Second, they’re fulfilling that Greek ideal of developing mind and body. Or, more simply, offering students activities through which they can be well-rounded. A swim team is like an orchestra — it won’t generate much direct revenue, but it’s a part of the school’s student life. And the occasional rare talent may go on to make a living at it.

So before we can call football players slaves — a suggestion Branch dismisses and then uses anyway — we have to bear in mind a couple of things. The money from jersey sales (as an aside: I was told in my college days that schools couldn’t sell jerseys that *named* a player — is that no longer true) does more than fill coaches’ and administrators’ pockets. And while those coaches may be overpaid, their work enhances a player’s earning ability down the road. If they’re excelling on a college playing field so much so that they’re selling merchandise by the ton, they’re likely in that 1-2 percent of people who’ll reap pro benefits down the road.

All that said, Ed O’Bannon’s suit is interesting. Once a player has completed college eligibility, shouldn’t he be allowed to trade his fame for modest fortune? Perhaps so.

And paying college players, frankly, would be less of an issue if other people paid them. What is the harm to the game if Lauren Cheney takes her bonus money from winning the 2008 Olympics and returns to the UCLA soccer team? If a collegiate golfer wins the U.S. Open, what’s the point of returning the money?

Sponsorships are trickier. If Nike and adidas start sponsoring college players, the divide between “Nike schools” and “adidas schools” will just get wider. But if the school doesn’t gain a recruiting edge from, say, a basketball player endorsing Starbucks, then why not allow it?

Those are the real issues of “shamateurism.” The NCAA is full of counterproductive rules, and woe be to the college tutor or student-athlete who questions them. Might be nice to see a follow-up that focuses more on that aspect and less on questions of slavery.

1 Comment

  1. Thought-provoking response, so allow me to pick nits.

    Taylor Branch isn’t just some doofus on Bleacher Report. The guy’s written volumes on Martin Luther King Jr. He’s also not the first person to compare the NCAA to a plantation, and given the racial makeup of the parties involved, that’s not a trivial perception.

    Most schools are not making money on football. That’s a very good point, and the fact that so many schools stick with an unprofitable drain is because they hope some day to be Boise State – to the detriment not just of their educational mission, but the good of their actual student-athletes. The profitable football programs – and the profitable basketball programs – should have fled the NCAA decades ago anyway.

    The big programs can afford to pay players easily – we’re talking about minor leaguers, for the most part, and frankly a college scholarship will probably end up being the going rate for 90% of them. The teams that obsessively need a winning program at all costs – not all of them are located in the SEC – can and should pay the market rate for NFL prospects. The rest of the however many hundreds of programs can still offer scholarships, and keep their teams going.

    Paying players, and professionalizing college teams, also offers a very nice way out of the Title IX controversy. If your program makes money, then you won’t need to offer scholarships – you can offer your players actual factual money for services rendered, and it won’t affect the educational mission any more than Pumas affects UNAM. If your program doesn’t make money, then why are you throwing away 85 scholarships in the first place?

    In any case, the NCAA is an idea whose time has gone.

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