It's time for the NCAA to make sweeping changes
Now that we know that some of the people who prosecute the cheaters in college sports are cheaters themselves, maybe it's time to reexamine the entire enterprise. In light of NCAA president Mark Emmert's admission on Wednesday that the organization essentially hired an attorney for convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro to hijack a deposition in a federal bankruptcy case with questions designed to aid the NCAA's investigation into the University of Miami athletic department, perhaps it's better to stop trying to apply a Band-Aid to an ax wound. Maybe the schools that run the NCAA should look hard at exactly what the NCAA is trying to protect with its aggressive prosecution of transgressions involving dollar amounts that are laughably small in comparison to the take at most major football schools.
The NCAA, working in tandem with quite a few members of my profession, has done an excellent job throughout the years of making you believe people who break the NCAA's rules are evil. Don't believe me? Let's play a name association game.
If you've followed college sports for the past few years and you aren't a fan of the schools associated with these particular individuals, here are the phrases that probably popped immediately into your head.
Helped Reggie Bush get paid.
Sold his jersey.
Got free tattoos.
The NCAA is amazing at selling the narrative that the NCAA is all that stands between the purity of college sports and absolute lawlessness. It does this to protect its member schools, which with their left hands swear by the notion of amateurism so they don't have to pay taxes on the multibillion-dollar television rights deals they're signing with their right hands. But if the NCAA has to break its own rules to do that, maybe the schools that run the organization need to decide whether an ideal that doesn't really exist anymore is worth protecting.
All the NCAA's ban on players making more than tuition, room and board does is create a black market in which shady handlers cash in and players risk eligibility for relative pennies. The college students didn't decide to turn college football and men's college basketball into lucrative businesses. The grown-ups did. (In fact, they sued the NCAA to make the largesse possible.) Now it's time for those grown-ups to admit they broke the model of amateurism and try to find a workable solution instead of cheating while trying to tar college students for realizing a bit of their market value.
The best solution remains something similar to what has long been advocated by ESPN basketball analyst -- and attorney and former student-athlete -- Jay Bilas. Embrace the same model as the Olympics. In 2011, I offered a truncated rewrite of the NCAA rulebook that would incorporate the Olympic model. Don't allow schools to pay more -- this takes care of the tax and Title IX issues -- but allow anyone else to pay any athlete they choose. Yahoo! columnist Dan Wetzel proposed a similar system on Wednesday. This would provide a more just system with far fewer headaches, but the public and people who run college athletics have been beaten about the head for so long with the notion that any remuneration beyond a scholarship is immoral that they can't abide common sense. Every time a major conference signs a new television rights deal, the dollar figures grow, yet the people in charge cling to rules written for a time when revenue was scarce and costs had to be carefully controlled. At some point, probably when members of a younger generation have taken charge, this notion of immorality will disappear. Just as people in the 1800s thought women would never be allowed to vote and people now can't imagine a time when women couldn't vote, opinions will shift.
Besides, there are few sensible arguments against such reforms. The chief knock on the Olympic model is that the boosters at the wealthiest schools will pay so much that the top recruits will choose only those schools. Perhaps the defenders of the status quo don't read Rivals.com very often. According to the site, the top seven recruiting classes in 2013 as of Thursday morning are as follows:
2. Notre Dame
4. Ohio State
Now let's take a look at top seven football-revenue producing schools for the 2011-12 school year, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
7. Notre Dame
Those lists look awfully similar. In fact, 13 of the top 20 revenue producers are ranked in the top 20 of Rivals.com's class of 2013 team rankings. The wealthiest schools already get the top recruits. Allowing boosters or companies to pay players wouldn't change anything with regard to competitive equity. The playing field would remain as tilted as ever, because some fan bases will always care more about football than other fan bases.
But a loosening of the rules would change the way the NCAA treats the most valuable employees in this increasingly lucrative business. The NCAA has always excelled at selling the narrative that any player or coach who runs afoul of its rules is a hopeless cheater. We in the media and plenty of fans happily slurp up this notion. Those dirty, rotten cheaters need to be punished. When a player gets dragged into the NCAA's court, he is forever smeared. For starters, he is guilty until proven innocent. While going through the NCAA's disciplinary process, he'll probably receive more negative media attention than a non-famous person convicted of rape or murder. For the remainder of his life, the player or coach will be branded a cheater.
So how do we reconcile these smear campaigns with the fact that the NCAA is willing to break its own rules to catch these scofflaws? Will Jerry Tarkanian or O.J. Mayo or John Blake receive an apology if an investigator broke the rules in their cases? When the NCAA catches a coach running afoul of its rules, the prevailing sentiment is that it wasn't the first time the coach broke the rule. It was the first time he got caught. The same standard applies here. How many other times have members of the NCAA enforcement staff cheated to win a conviction? (Why they would bother cheating is another question; the NCAA's burden of proof in its version of a court has always been absurdly low.) If a California judge unseals the evidence in former USC football assistant McNair's defamation suit against the NCAA, we'll probably find another example. The "evidence" against McNair was cooked because the NCAA needed a skin to put on the wall in the Reggie Bush case.
How are we supposed to believe any of these cases were handled properly? And what exactly did the NCAA win in each one? The NCAA worked so hard to make you believe that McNair, Green and Pryor were substandard human beings for the following reasons:
• According to the NCAA, McNair received a phone call from one of the guys paying Bush.
• According to the NCAA, Green sold a jersey for $1,000 to an agent's runner.
• According the NCAA, Pryor sold Ohio State commemorative items for $2,500 worth of tattoos and cash.
Who is the real villain here? Is it the player who trades a tiny gold pants charm for cash? Or is it the organization that paints him as a scoundrel for realizing some of his market value during a school year in which his university reported $63.8 million in football revenue? Even if every rumor about Pryor were true, we'd be talking about a haul in the very low six figures for the second-most-famous person in a multimillion-dollar enterprise. There actually is no villain here. A player taking a little more doesn't hurt anyone, and NCAA investigators are just trying to do their jobs. Even if the rules are arbitrary and dumb, they do get paid to enforce them.
Maybe it's time to blow up the model. The NCAA is under attack from all sides -- and not only by whiny sportswriters. Either the organization will pay McNair or the enforcement department will be further undermined when the evidence gets unsealed. Also, the case originally filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon continues to steam along. O'Bannon and others have sued because the NCAA continues to profit off their likenesses in video games without compensating them. The NCAA is clearly in the wrong. It will settle, or it will go to court and lose. Either way, it will have to change how it handles the use of athletes' likenesses after their eligibility expires. Meanwhile, the state of Pennsylvania will mount a legal challenge to Emmert's decision to punish Penn State's football program because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. At least Emmert doesn't have to worry about anyone finding evidence an NCAA employee cheated in the Penn State investigation. Emmert circumvented his own organization's judicial process and punished Penn State's football players without an investigation and without a finding that any actual NCAA rules were broken. Emmert did not, however, punish crony Graham Spanier, the former Penn State president who is facing a perjury charge because state officials believe Spanier helped cover up the rape of children.
With so much in flux, now is the perfect time to make sweeping changes. Emmert actually has tried to be a reformer and a deregulator during his time in office, but his blunders have drawn far more attention. If he wants to be remembered for something more than a unilateral punishment of Penn State and a scandal that destroyed the credibility of his enforcement department, Emmert should gather school presidents and convince them that the best way to fix the NCAA is to admit that, in the revenue sports, their schools abandoned the amateur ideal a long time ago. Only then can the NCAA begin building an organization that can effectively govern the booming business of major college sports.