I don’t say this often, but The Nation just nailed it. Writing about Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, The Nation’s sports editor, Dave Zirin, doesn’t excuse the coach’s dishonesty, but he zeroes in on the real villain — an NCAA regulatory structure that fundamentally exploits its student-athletes even as it hoovers up vast sums of money for the NCAA, its member schools, and a favored few coaches. Money quotes:
The Sports Illustrated expose is a terrific piece of investigative journalism — and yet it fails in one respect. It doesn’t take a step back and ask whether a system is insane in which players trade the rings off their fingers or the shirts off their back to get the college-age amenities most students take for granted. As more and more obscene amounts of money have poured into so-called amateur sports — the Big Ten conference signed a television contract worth $770 million — these kinds of scandals are endemic. Consider that Ohio State’s legendary coach Woody Hayes made $43,000 at the peak of his powers. It’s a different world for everyone — except the players themselves.
As OSU English professor Pranav Jani said to me, ”I guess there’s something positive in the fact that that we’ve created a climate in which Tressel’s tremendous success couldn’t excuse his unethical behavior. But I’m waiting for the day when we ask bigger questions. Why should universities facing steep budget cuts pay, oh, about $3.5 million a year or so for top coaches? What if student athletes, who create so much revenue by their play, were actually paid for it — and didn’t feel like they had to sell merchandise to find deals on cars? It’s easy, and even entertaining, to point to the hypocrisy of someone like Tressel, who lied through his teeth while writing books to teach people about responsibility and ethics. But the rot is much deeper than this. Tressel is the symptom, not the disease.”
As a practical matter, the NCAA sets up its players and coaches for failure. It holds member schools accountable for the actions of people they have no legal control over (such as players’ parents, school boosters, and — to a great extent — even the players themselves). It then attempts to regulate away human nature through a hyper-bureaucracy that is privately held and largely unaccountable for its excesses. Finally, the NCAA’s phenomenal greed is covered in a veneer of self-righteousness that — if one plays by the rules — keeps the often-poor athletes in a state of penury amongst the prosperity of their classmates even as the school makes tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars off their talents.
I’m looking forward to the day when the power conferences break the NCAA monopoly and introduce some basic (and morally preferable) market economics to college sports.