The NCAA Must Reform Itself or Die

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Josh Jacobs runs against Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Roquan Smith during the NCAA college football championship game, January 8, 2018. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
The transparent sham of amateurism has allowed schools to profit from the unpaid labor of young athletes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s wrong, and it can’t last forever.

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) wants to nail a member school to the wall, it charges the school’s athletic program with “lack of institutional control.” Those are the dreaded words no college or university athletic director ever wants to hear: the ultimate charge, the ne plus ultra of bad news liable to give fans, coaches, and the athletes themselves nightmares.

Schools actually convicted on those grounds — the NCAA plays both judge and jury — have ranged from Southern Methodist, whose football program paid players out of a slush fund with eager assistance from power-brokers in Dallas government and business; to Baylor, whose basketball coach asked his team to cover up the murder of one player by another; to Penn State, whose head football coach, athletic director, and president swept an assistant coach’s sexual abuse of young boys under the rug to protect the university’s public image. “Lack of institutional control” is thus a kind of catch-all charge, an all-purpose hammer with which to punish the systemic fault underlying particularly egregious infractions. And, as the only forum in which charges are heard, the NCAA has discretion when it comes to whether or not to go after a school. (Cynics recall the alleged barb by long-time Long Beach State and UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian: “The NCAA is so mad at Michigan that they’ll probably put Long Beach on probation,” he supposedly said.)

It is useful to remember all of this when considering the latest storm to hit college basketball, an ongoing FBI investigation that has uncovered NCAA violations at the highest levels of the sport. For in this case, the charge of lack of institutional control applies not to individual schools but to the entire NCAA.

The short story is that that agents, apparel companies, and schools allegedly paid players such as Wendell Carter Jr., Josh Jackson, and DeAndre Ayton thousands of dollars under the table to secure their services in the present and put in a claim on their future. Players, often from poor backgrounds, want money; agents, apparel-company representatives, and coaches dangle it in front of them. The agents hope one day to receive commission on their future clients’ multi-million-dollar NBA contracts. The apparel companies want players to attend schools they sponsor, make their brands more attractive, and one day sign a shoe deal with them. And the school officials want the players to play for their programs, both because they want to win and because tournament-worthy basketball is lucrative. Sometimes, these incentives align, as reporting suggests they did in the FBI’s case, where coaches, Adidas representatives, and agents are alleged to have worked in concert to funnel players to certain schools and agencies.

The NCAA would hasten to note that all of this is forbidden. But that bar is strictly nominal and nakedly corrupt. The NCAA’s theory of amateur athletics — the players are student-athletes, in it for the love of the game — is a façade that conveniently diverts the hundreds of millions of dollars college sports generate to … the NCAA. The players, from the walk-on at the end of the bench to the celebrated one-and-done prospect spending a short season in college before entering the NBA draft, are technically amateurs, reimbursed with scholarships. But the NBA-bound, and the more tragic cases of those who think they are NBA-bound, have no interest in being college students.

Though everyone knows the amateurism doctrine is a sham, the NCAA clings to a Frank Merriwell model of part-time athletes balancing homework and practice because it means more money for the NCAA. But top players, aware they are worth more than an often-meaningless scholarship, will inevitably endeavor to capitalize on their own value. “Wishing away young players’ market value doesn’t change the fact that it exists,” writes The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks. Thus the NCAA, in its hubristic attempt to squash market forces, has created a threat to its own continued dominance of college sports: an enormous black market for prospects’ services.

If any orthodox Marxists are reading this, they’re salivating: Wealthy capitalists are capturing all of the value a player generates. But there’s a more fundamental principle at stake that should convince conservatives to oppose the current arrangement: a belief in free markets. Though no government is denying these players their rights, college football and basketball have monopsonic power as farm leagues for the NFL and NBA. There is no viable alternative for most players looking to sell their labor, but if they take money, they will be declared ineligible, their schools punished, and their teams’ results vacated. When A.J. Green, a talented Georgia football player, sold his own jersey, he was suspended for four games.

So players conduct their business in secret, and naturally encounter shady figures who care as much for NCAA regulations as they do for federal laws. This is where the FBI comes in. Many of the loans to basketball players were offered illicitly, and appear to have violated wire-fraud and tax laws. Assistant coaches from Arizona, Oklahoma State, and Auburn, Adidas executives, and agents for an outfit called ASM Sports have been hit with bribery and corruption charges.

So far the FBI investigation has given NCAA president Mark Emmert an opportunity to wax moralistic about the importance of the rulebook, a chance to pretend these violations are grave moral wrongs rather than obvious consequences of its outdated regime. Precisely one attribute makes Emmert a leader: a keen ability to sound holier-than-thou while presiding over a hypocritical wreck of a system that aggressively abets what it claims to want to prevent. But if he keeps his institution wedded to the old idea of amateurism, more and more-severe scandals will be the result, and the enterprise eventually will have to change — or risk crumbling under the weight of its own hypocrisy.

It would be a shame to lose college sports. Their fun, mayhem, and pageantry are woven into the American cultural fabric. Tear them out and the nation will be worse. But the NCAA shouldn’t pretend we live in the days before amateur athletics became big business. Schools, coaches, and administrators make millions of dollars from college sports; players are rational economic actors whose skills are their most valuable asset and who will always try to capture their value. The NCAA will never be able to stamp out such activity nor punish it fairly after-the-fact.

A better, more American way to fix things would be for the NCAA to open up its market by adopting what’s called the “Olympic model”: the framework in place for Olympic athletes, who are still amateurs but are permitted to profit off their names and likenesses. If the Zion Williamsons of the world were allowed to sign endorsements, for example, they’d have a real chance to earn what they’re actually worth while remaining in college. The Olympic model side-steps concerns over Title IX. Meanwhile, a robust stipend covering the cost of living would help athletes from impoverished backgrounds. Unless and until the NCAA reforms along these lines, though, we should call it what it is: a corrupt cartel guilty of a lack of institutional control.


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