Food For Thought: Why Do Amateur Sports Colleges Need The NCAA?

Published on 24 February 2013 by in College Sports, NCAA


I have concentrated this year on my career-long commitment to civil rights history, teaching an experimental online seminar at the University of Baltimore while promoting a newly published book, The King Years.

Still, with the NCAA’s March Madness approaching, more questions arrive about my recent foray into college sports.  In The Cartel, I concluded that fans and educators have recoiled from basic issues of fairness.  A rationalizing inertia undermines not only the rights of college athletes but the integrity of higher education.

(It is not particularly easy to find quick links to purchase The Cartel as an e-book or paperback on Byliner’s site. As such, I have provided them at the bottom of the blog post)

Here is a question to ponder as the annual frenzy over college basketball builds again in the coming weeks.  Would it matter if the NCAA’s amateur rules were nullified at the vast majority of its 1,066 member schools that do not pursue commercialized sports?

More than 700 Division II and Division III institutions sponsor intense but relatively inconspicuous games, with few athletic scholarships or none.  If permitted, would Pomona College, Florida Southern, and Saginaw Valley barge into the athletic marketplace?  Would Middlebury and Texas Lutheran scramble to give athletes salaries on top of new scholarships?

Invariably, officials at such schools tell me no.  They could not and would not pay players any more than they would offer wages to the drama club or dance troupe.  They say professional shows would violate their educational mission.

I applaud this stance.  No college should be compelled to start a side business or to pay anyone.  We should recognize, however, that this focus at most colleges is grounded in principles and practicality wholly independent of NCAA rules.  Indeed, the heads of smaller schools bristle at any suggestion that they shun commercialized sports because the NCAA requires it.

Here then is the rub.  By lending—or renting—their educational idealism to the NCAA, the smaller colleges create a façade of universal amateurism that shields rapacious, predatory sports programs.  Roughly a tenth of the NCAA membership has chosen to commercialize campus sports to the hilt.  These big-time sports schools chase multimillion-dollar license and broadcast deals to finance a vast, lucrative complex for all but the core talent.   No voices—not even the blue-ribbon reform commissions—forthrightly justify the amateur vows imposed on college players.

A few academic thinkers have begun to cut through this bedrock presumption.  In “The Illusion of Amateurism in College Athletics,” for instance, Warren Zola of Boston College dismantles the NCAA’s claim to exist solely for the educational enhancement of students through sports.  Zola makes clear that education and big-money athletics are separate worlds, with distinct standards.  Managing them starts with honesty.

Suppose for a moment that the 700 smaller colleges either withdrew from the NCAA or used their super-majority within it to renounce one-way amateurism.  Nothing would change for most of these schools.  They would retain proper responsibility both for their athletes in the classroom and for their students in the sports arena. To address conflict, they could apply the three-point agenda I gleaned from campus consultations last year: [1] Transparency (in academic and financial records); [2] Balance (in goals for education and sports); and [3] Equity (in governance).

By contrast, the powerhouse sports programs fail a key test of equity: “No freedom shall be abridged because of athletic status.”  The schools strip from athletes many basic freedoms that all fellow students—let alone other citizens—take for granted.  These include the rights of due process, equal opportunity, consent, representation, labor, and fair market value.  Such blanket deprivation lies beyond the reach of any single university or conference.  It has prevailed by NCAA collusion and fiat, without sanction in law.

March Madness brings into focus the commercial engine of college sports.  CBS-Turner pays $771 million directly to the NCAA in broadcast rights for the one-month event.  This huge sum accounts for more than 90 percent of the NCAA’s annual income.  Of the NCAA’s 340 Division I basketball teams, the 68 entrants selected each year come mostly from 124 BCS (Bowl Championship Series) schools that also dominate college football.  An occasional “Cinderella” advances beyond early rounds, but last year, typically, 15 of the “Sweet 16” were BCS teams.

The BCS and NCAA are nervous rivals.  Last month, in an interview with NPR host Tom Hall, I described them as “overlapping cartels.”  The BCS schools, which negotiate separate football contracts, have been jumping around wildly to consolidate bargaining strength in the BCS conferences that will launch a four-team football championship in 2014.  Competitive complaints and legal pressures will push toward a three-round playoff structure, mimicking basketball’s “Elite Eight,” but one thing is certain: the NCAA will have no say or stake in the mammoth television bonuses to be reaped from a BCS gridiron tournament.  It was precisely to avoid sharing revenue with NCAA Headquarters, and with its myriad small colleges, that Big Football revolted from NCAA control in the 1980s.

So the NCAA remains dependent on a basketball monopoly while the BCS builds its competing football juggernaut.  Nearly a thousand humbler colleges and universities give this unstable raw casino a fig leaf of amateur purpose.  They may see no reason to question their minimal participation, which serves tradition and unity.  Yet if dollar-driven campus games rest on the exploitation of athletes, as I contend, corrective action is never wrong.   It might spur a broader wake-up to skewed values in higher education.

To the inevitable howls from our college sports empire, amateur schools have a truly educational response: “If you don’t want to pay your students, don’t use them for business.”


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