Because the NCAA created the "athletics grant-in-aid," in 1956, it also created the phrase "athletic scholarship," which Byers concedes was once thought to be oxymoronic. "It still abuses the English language," he writes in Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, "but the contradiction now is ingrained in the American idiom." As its subtitle suggests, Byers's book decries the "plantation mentality" of Division I college athletics, under which coaches and college administrators sit on the veranda, sipping mint juleps, their shoe-contracted feet propped up on the railing, while young athletes pick cotton in the fields. Because Byers was present at the creation of this world, his book was met with the reaction, "Uh, now you tell us?"
That the book was met with any reaction at all is a wonder, given its curious marketing: It sits on store shelves in shrink-wrap, unbrowsable. Byers, a onetime United Press sportswriter who seldom gave interviews or mingled among NCAA members while in office, is 74 years old and has retired to his Kansas City home and his Seven Cross ranch in Pottawatomie County, Kans., where he remains largely out of sight, shrink-wrapped and unbrowsable.
But his hardcover fusillade, which stands in silent rebuke on the office shelves of top NCAA managers, speaks for itself: "Dramatic changes" are required in the "oppressive" laws of the "self-righteous" NCAA, particularly to spread the wealth to student-athletes. "Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue," Byers writes. "It is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice."
Byers suggests that the NCAA abandon its role as what he calls the "arbiter of the term, value and conditions of an athlete's 'scholarship' and as controller of the athlete's outside income during his or her collegiate tenure. Whereas the NCAA defends its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields, they actually are a device to divert [that] money elsewhere." Yes, and if Fidel Castro abandons his role as arbiter of Cuba's destiny, there might soon be a Hooters in Havana. But El Presidente is unlikely to surrender any of his power voluntarily, and Byers says the same is true of the NCAA. He has called for Congress to sign a college athletes' bill of rights that would allow scholarship athletes to hold jobs during the school year (which the NCAA finally permitted, with certain limitations, in January), eliminate the rule requiring transfers to sit out a year, allow athletes to consult agents about their pro career prospects, and make schools give workmen's compensation coverage to their athletes.
"The NCAA, with its mammoth rule book, controls individual athletes in a manner I think is illegal," Byers told SI in a brief telephone interview. "It denies athletes the freedom other students have."
Dempsey began making changes in the national office before he even crossed the moat. When he arrived on Jan. 2, 1994, the six best spaces in the parking lot were reserved for members of the upper-management team. Dempsey put an end to the perk, and workers uprooted the concrete curbstones, as if toppling Lenin's statues in post-Communist Russia. It says much about the old office culture that for the next week nobody parked in the six spaces nearest to the building's entrance.
The glasnost had begun under Dempsey's predecessor, Dick Schultz, the extroverted, Gorbachevian executive director during the six years after Byers's retirement. Alas, Schultz was forced to resign in 1993 because of NCAA violations that had occurred during his tenure as athletic director at Virginia, from 1981 to '87. The irony that the head of the NCAA was deposed after an NCAA investigation was lost on nobody.
Stroll through the halls of 6201 College Boulevard today and you'll see incontinent Ocean Spray Mango! Mango! drinks wetting desktops. "I have Dilbert cartoons on my wall," notes Janet Justus, director of education resources. "You never would have seen that before." Nor would you have seen Justus in Doc Marten boots. Last fall Dempsey introduced a five-days-a-week informal dress code. Freed to express themselves sartorially, staffers have shown wildly eclectic preferences—from NCAA-logo golf shirts to NCAA-logo golf sweaters. It's a start.
"I hate buzzwords," says Bork, an 18-year veteran of the national office and a great admirer of Byers's. "But we now talk about empowerment and giving people decision-making ability. It's a warmer atmosphere."
As Dempsey settles behind the wheel of his courtesy car—supplied by O'Neill Oldsmobile, the same Kansas City dealer that gave Kansas center Wilt Chamberlain an Olds in 1956, in violation of NCAA rules—the obvious question is put to him: Now that the NCAA has loosened the rules for its employees, might it not do the same for its athletes?