Misplaced Anger At Heart Of College Athletics Criticism

Straw Man

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — If there is one thing that the NCAA excels at, it’s the ability for it to be the straw man as to what’s wrong with intercollegiate athletics.


Schools and programs can misbehave, and it’s the NCAA’s fault.  Athletes misbehave, and it’s the NCAA’s fault.  TV contracts are too big, and it’s the NCAA’s fault.


When it comes to enforcement of their own rules, the NCAA can seem like the Keystone cops, especially lately.  But when people fall into the trap of drinking the haterade about the NCAA, they can be blamed for everything – which is bad when it comes to framing the debates about collegiate athletics in our time.


It’s important, because the problems plaguing college athletics will not go away until people stop focusing on the NCAA and instead talk about the people who really control the purse strings.


It’s an iconic phrase in an iconic movie.  In All the President’s Men, Hal Holbrook, or “Deep Throat”, told Robert Redford to “follow the money” if he wanted to learn the truth about who was behind the Watergate wiretapping scandal.


In college athletics, you might be forgiven if you thought the money trail led back to the NCAA, especially after reading about Kain Colter and his effort to fight for the right to unionize college football players at Northwestern.


One thing about this whole business that is fascinating is the shifting of focus on who the real bad guy is.


The heart of Colter’s argument was that Northwestern’s requirements for playing football were so strenuous and so against the academic mission of the school that the football he plays for the Wildcats should be a considered a job rather than an activity.


And the go-to move that Northwestern leaned on as a defense was that NCAA rules prevented the Wildcat athletic department from implementing some of the things that Colter and his union advisors said were things they needed – for example, a trust fund for medical expenses after graduation.


“Northwestern is the straw man,” said Gene Marsh, a former chairman of the infractions committee for the NCAA and current legal counsel for collegiate athletic departments for Jackson Lewis.  “This is about the NCAA.”


But Colter’s counsel, led by Raomgi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker that wants to establish a union for college football players with help from United Steelworkers, said Northwestern can do a number of things within the confines of NCAA rules.


“We have issues with the NCAA,” Huma told the New York Times. “But this fight is with Northwestern.”


That may not be a surprise because Northwestern doesn’t get a whole lot of money directly from the NCAA.


For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the teams of the Big Ten earned approximately $25.8 million per school from the conference, according to Forbes


Approximately 6% of that money comes from the NCAA, in the form of NCAA Tournament payouts, while 80% of that check comes from revenues from TV contracts that the Big 10 has with their Fox-based TV network, CBS, and ESPN.


That may explain why the unionization folks are looking to sue Northwestern rather than the NCAA – they are “following the money”.  After all, it’s not the NCAA that will bear the potential costs of their unionization effort – it’s Northwestern.


Good and bad sportswriters all over the internet are taking potshots galore about the NCAA about this issue – chortling over issues over amateurism, whether or not the NCAA invented the term student-athlete to exploit the workers, and whether the NCAA somehow has caused all of this to happen.


But all this doesn’t mean much in the context of today. 


The NCAA can partially control the lives of student-athletes through a complex rulebook, but they currently cannot prevent individual conferences going out on the open market to find out what their TV rights will bear.


They cannot prevent schools from opting out of their sanctioned football championship, inventing their own BCS championship trophy, cutting a TV deal from that, then splitting that revenue with other conferences.  (Which is, in effect, how the BCS came to be.)


This conference and BCS money is a good portion of the money that is paying Northwestern, not a check from the NCAA.


People like to complain about the state of college athletics, and that it’s all the NCAA’s fault. 


Yet many of these same people gleefully subscribe to the Big 10 Network and allow part of their monthly cable bill to funnel a good hunk of revenue directly to the conference, which is then distributed to the indivdual schools, with no oversight from the NCAA.


“Following the money” from their own pockets, suprisingly, largely goes to the large sports TV Networks, with portions divvied off to the conferences themselves, which then filter into the pockets of institutions without the NCAA getting involved at all.


Unfortunately the NCAA makes itself such an easy target, it distracts from the actual nuts and bolts of revenue generation of the conferences and schools, which perhaps may be what Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big 10, and Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, would like happen.


It is this unregulated money that is corrupting college sports.  It is the money that creates the cheating and the temptations of athletic departments to cheat, which the NCAA then attempts to thwart through the crafting of new rules, some of which don’t make any sense.


With all this talk about unionization, revenues and the like with college athletics, what is missing is serious talk about how people will really, truly, limit conferences from acting like Russian oligarchs and its members from treating its athletic departments like moneymaking corporations.


The NCAA, at least at one time, tried to be the organization that kept the largest conferences from acting completely like oligarchs. 


But more and more it keeps failing at that goal because the oligarchs are only getting richer and richer, with a seemingly endless pit of fans willing to spend money to watch their teams on TV. 


The oligarchs figured long ago how to circumvent the NCAA when it came to making money, with the NCAA near-powerless to stop that process from happening.


People don’t truly realize that the Big Ten could afford to pay a stipend to every single one of its competing athletes if it wanted to and was unencumbered by any rules.  It could afford to pay everyone something, from wrestlers to field hockey players to football players.


Doing so would make a mockery of college sports, though, breaking a precedent set more than 100 years ago in regards to paying players to play sports.


The essence of the argument is this: If you’re paying a player something, whether it’s a salary or $2,000 for books, can you then tell them they have to study, or go to classes, or keep up with good grades?


Contrary to popular belief, such debates are not new. 


In 1896, Lehigh refused to play Lafayette in football because one of its players played semi-professional baseball during the summer.  To this day, depending on who you talk to,  Lafayette says that the amount of money the player made was incidental and barely covered his costs for playing.  Lehigh says that the amout he made was extorbitant, making him a salaried player and thus not an amateur athlete.


The sad truth is there needs to be both a unified set of rules and a unified organization that oversees the entirety of collegiate athletic operations. 


There needs to be one to enforce rules of competition.  These need to be uniform – the rules defining what college football is affect Ohio State also affect Grambling equally.  If the BCS decided to add ten yards to the length of their extra points, they’d be playing a different sport than everyone else.


But more and more there needs to be some organization – I don’t know exactly who – that oversees, and perhaps regulates, all the currently unregulated money flowing directly from consumers to the big conferences.


Then, and only then, will you see meaningful change in the way college athletics does business.