Why the NCAA's New Reforms Won't Fix College Sports

The system is doomed, even with the small tweaks president Mark Emmert wants to make



To hear National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert tell it, there is nothing wrong with his organization—nor with the wobbly, creaking edifice that is big-time college sports—that a few minor, well-intentioned tweaks can't fix. To wit: He's endorsing an expanded student-athlete grant-in-aid allowance . Some slightly stricter minimum academic requirements. Less costly overseas travel. More thoughtfulness and collegiality in the Cash-4-BCS-Bids conference realignment scramble. Oh, and definitely fewer rules about what recruiters can and cannot spread atop complimentary bagels , because everyone agrees that regulating cream cheese vis-à-vis peanut butter is completely absurd.

Unlike, say, institutions of higher education practicingcartel economics and denial of due process.

"I and the university presidents were disgusted with much of what we had seen the preceding year—behavior issues, lack of integrity and forthrightness, the scandals du jour," Emmert told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics at a Monday meeting in downtown Washington, D.C. "All of that was just annoying to the extreme."

This is why the NCAA is doomed: because Emmert and his fellow campus power brokers are fixated on behavior issues and recruiting scandals, and because they are disgusted with the shameless, grasping likes of Bruce Pearl and Jim Tressel.

As opposed to, say, themselves.

College sports as we know them are not a fixer-upper, a grand old mansion in need of new plumbing and some energy-efficient windows. College sports are a paper mache parking garage, filled beyond capacity, resting atop a Chuck E. Cheese rainbow-ball play-pit foundation. And the building engineers, the people in charge, are annoyed. Excuse me. Annoyed to the extreme. Because the floors keep cracking and the roof keeps leaking and the whole building keeps tilting to one side, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only without the sun-drenched Italian postcard charm, no matter how much sweat and spackle and special subcommittee study group recommendations are applied.

Doomed. Mark it down. Not tomorrow. Not in a year. But eventually. Even if no one involved has the courage to admit it.

Appearing before the Knight Commission—an outside, nonprofit group tasked with reforming college sports—Emmert had a chance to be bold. An opportunity to address not only a recent spate of embarrassing pay-for-play and no-pay-for-tattoos scandals—the latest in a long, long line—but also the fundamentally unfair and unjust philosophy that both underwrites and undergirds the entire system in the first place.

Amateurism. The notion that slipping on a college sports uniform transports young men and women to a magical realm where fairies ride unicorns across rainbow bridges, the logic of Catch-22 applies to an individual's commercial likeness rights , and the same freedom to explore and exploit one's market value that governs almost every other aspect of American economic life becomes a no good, very bad thing. A moral and economic con laid bare by Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch in a recent, widely discussed Atlantic cover story.

Unsurprisingly, Emmert punted, kicking the can on almost every big issue facing college sports.

Branch expected as much. When I spoke to him last week, he predicted that Emmert would whistle past his particular criticisms and general indictment, the better to address two topics: (a) academic standards; (b) a small stipend for college athletes.

That's pretty much what happened.

First, the headline news: Emmert announced that he supported a proposal to allow conferences to increase grants to college athletes by up to $2,000, a potential rule change that would bring NCAA schools one step closer to paying players a fair portion of the revenue they generate, something advocated by Branch and many, many others. Only Emmert was adamant: The $2,000 will not be payment. Nor will it qualify as a stipend. It will simply be a different method of "resource allocation," allowing schools to increase the value of an athletic grant-in-aid to "more closely approach the full cost of [university] attendance."

Of course, Emmert had reason to be a semantic stickler. Amateurism still rules the day. It has to. Players cannot be paid for their athletic labor. Or be viewed as such. Otherwise, they might qualify for workman's comp. Or be allowed to collectively bargain. The Internal Revenue Service might take another look at the tax-exempt status of university athletic departments. College sports as currently constituted likely would implode.

Still, the proposed $2,000 non-payment payment does little to alleviate the NCAA's existing unfairness.

Under the new system, a college athlete would earn an additional $38 a week—about $5.50 a day, good for a gallon-plus of gas, or something extra foamy and calorie-riffic at Starbucks. Meanwhile, coaching salaries are in the millions, assistant coaching salaries are following suit, and Emmert refused to disclose his salary when asked on camera by PBS' Frontline. In addition, the Knight Commission reported that the average annual football television revenue for the five Bowl Championship Series conferences is roughly $1.1 billion—slightly higher than that of the National Basketball Association; about two times that of Major League Baseball; five times that of the National Hockey League—while the total, multi-year value of the BCS conferences' existing broadcast deals is a staggering $13.8 billion.

Plug those same conferences into the United Nations, a commission member said, and they would have the world's 110th largest GDP.

Next, academics. Emmert said he wanted college athletes to be "students who happen to be athletes, and not the other way around." A noble goal, perhaps. Thing is, a group of affiliated institutions as diverse as the NCAA can only really set an academic lowest common denominator—not every athletic department can be Stanford, any more than every engineering school can be MIT. And the only way the governing body can try to enforce said denominator is to set up a punitive incentive system that links academic failure to athletic punishment. Emmert claimed that under new proposed academic requirements, seven teams that played in last year's men's Division I basketball tournament—including national champion Connecticut—would not have been allowed to participate due to subpar classroom performance, which would lead to losing a combined $2 million in revenue.

"Imagine a coach whose team is competing extremely well," Emmert said. "They have to walk in to his or her president, athletic director or team and say, 'I know we're playing well, but you can't play in postseason because you didn't study enough.'"

The NCAA's fiddling places the academic onus squarely where it doesn't belong- on athletic administrators and coaches, rather than on professors. The result? A system where there's arguably more—not less—incentive to cheat in the classroom, and where the overwhelming desire to win, win big, and collect lavish television payouts means athletes are in turn lavished with academic tutors and study facilities unavailable to the average, non-touchdown-producing student. According to the Knight Commission, per-athlete spending by Division I football schools jumped 50 percent from 2005 to 2009, while per-student spending over the same time period rose just 22 percent. In 2009, the median spending per athlete in the Southeastern Conference was $156,833—11.6 times the median $13,471 spent per student.

"We have build up a certain hostility between faculty and athletics," said Louisiana State University chancellor Michael Martin, who also spoke to the commission. "I have faculty that have gone 4 years without pay raises. ... There is an intensifying discomfort between what faculty see as their welfare in all of this and the welfare we seem to lavish on athletics."

And this discomfort and hostility between quad and field serves the intercollegiate educational mission how?

Emmert said little about containing costs or closing the aforementioned spending divide, offhandedly mentioning something about limiting international travel. To his credit, he did propose allowing schools to offer multi-year scholarships—a major improvement over the current (and odious, as Branch correctly pointed out) practice of giving year-to-year scholarships, which essentially allows coaches to fire once-recruited, now-unwanted college athletes. I would like to think the NCAA was motivated simply by doing the right thing, and not by the mortal fear of an antitrust lawsuits like the recent one filed by former Rice University football player Joseph Agnew ; however, I can't be sure. Not when Emmert dismissed the idea of current and former student-athletes earning money from the use of their images, the basis of a separate lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon . For years, the NCAA has required college athletes to sign an amateur status waiver that the organization claims transfers their promotional rights in perpetuity. O'Bannon's lawyers contend this is a ludicrous abuse of cartel power. A loss in court could torpedo the whole system. Branch argued for as much, writing "the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn." At the Knight Commission meeting, Emmert disagreed.

"When we move to professionalize our student athletes, in my opinion, we're just throwing in the towel," he said. "I don't know where that takes us other than a very bad road."

"We're using and abusing student athletes," countered Charles Young, University of Florida president emeritus.

"I get your point," Emmert said, without elaborating further.

The NCAA president was similarly noncommittal about the other elephant in the room, the BCS. Emmert's organization stages and sells the television rights to the men's Division I basketball tournament, which results in a partial distribution of wealth between college sports' haves and have-nots. In football, the bowl system is mostly controlled by the major conferences, which allows them to keep a bigger slice of the pie and shut non-BCS schools like Boise State out of the national championship picture. While Congress and President Obama both have expressed displeasure with the current arrangement, preferring a playoff system, the NCAA is boxed in: move too slowly on a playoff, and lawmakers or the Boise States of college football could mount an antitrust challenge; move too quickly, and the major conferences could revolt, consolidating into a new alliance and starting their own basketball tournament as well. Both outcomes would be a death knell for the NCAA.

"The probability of [a playoff system] is largely up to the member presidents and an impetus among the [Division I football schools] to go there," Emmert said. "We serve the members. If that's what they want, we know how to do it."

Emmert was happier playing small ball, talking about NCAA process reform: better rules, quicker bureaucratic action, less policing of bagels and the size of envelopes that college coaches can send to prospective recruits. He hardly mentioned the bigger picture. And he wasn't alone. From university heads such as Martin to the members of the Knight Commission, college sports are handcuffed by a maddening refusal to think different. Or at least think clearly and honestly about amateurism. The commission states that one of its bedrock goals is to "treat college athletes as students first and foremost—not as professionals." This is out of touch. Athletics already are a professional, commercial enterprise. For television networks. For advertisers. For sports apparel companies like Under Armour, which festooned Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton with at least 15 corporate logos last season. More to the point, academics are a commercial enterprise, too—and college sports happen to be a terrific marketing tool. "We raise more money for academics from former athletes than anyone else," said Thomas Ross, president of the North Carolina university system. After the meeting, I asked commission member Len Elmore—a former basketball star at the University of Maryland—if we'd be better off giving up the ghost, adopting the Olympic approach of letting athletes earn what they can, just like everyone else. Elmore furrowed his brow. He was eloquent. He was serious. He made the same old argument, a retreat into semantics and sentiment: if we pay amateur athletes, they'll be professionals. And then they won't be amateurs. I couldn't help but remember something Branch told me, about the frustration of reporting and writing his story.

"It upset me," Branchsaid. "We have this magnificent educational drama on every campus. And yet that's the last place to get any original thinking about college sports."

In the meantime, reform rolls on, puny and piecemeal, as always. And maybe that says something. If a game needs constant reconfiguring, and none of the participants end up particularly satisfied, which is basically the history of college sports, perhaps the problem isn't the rules. Perhaps the problem is the game itself. A former North Carolina state judge, Ross told the Knight Commission that the NCAA didn't have "a very good system." Yet on the matter of the $2,000 grant increase, he ventured that he'd like to see athletes given debit cards instead of cash, so that schools could examine the receipts. Sure. That's exactly what college sports needs. An oversight committee for Best Buy purchases.