The confetti cannons have stopped firing, “One Shining Moment” is but an echo, AT&T Stadium is back to being a soul-less, corporate edifice of excess, not a house of hoops dreams.
The Final Four was a Texas-sized success for the NCAA, one big self-contained, infomercial for the status quo of collegiate athletics with Jim Nantz as narrator. But the state of college sports is shifting, thanks to the Northwestern unionization case, and the NCAA has a choice — adapt or move aside.
The day before the title game, NCAA president Mark Emmert and a few other ambassadors of the current collegiate model addressed the media in Arlington, Texas. They spoke of change, but mostly advocated for the status quo in shiny new packaging. The NCAA is peddling New Coke and telling us they’re starting a juice bar.
Much like the term it coined — “student-athlete” — the NCAA is spitting out a lot of contradictions these days.
They have a $10.8 billion deal to televise the NCAA Tournament, but the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, the University of Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier, said he has gone to bed hungry. Emmert said that most schools don’t have the resources to pay athletes, but he would not endorse the idea of athletes getting revenue from a third party via endorsements or for signing their own names. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, an articulate and passionate voice of reason, called the NBA “irresponsible” for not providing a legitimate alternative to college for one-and-done players (the NBA D-League doesn’t cut it) and then spoke about how the NCAA Tournament covers 85 percent of the association’s expenses.
The NCAA can’t have it both ways.
It can’t say it’s a non-profit and have members playing in championships with billion-dollar television deals.
It can’t advocate for change in which the primary goal is preserving the lattice of the current model.
It can’t say it’s an association of 1,100 member schools with common goals and interests and then have 65 power-conference schools that are playing in a different league financially, but forced to follow the same rules.
It can’t say its primary mission is educating student-athletes and then have athletes compelled to spend 40 or 50 hours a week in time commitments related to playing their sport.
It can’t say it wants student-athletes to have a voice and then want to tell them what issues to speak up about.
The only contradiction that makes sense when it comes to college sports is that it’s professional-amateur athletics.
The NCAA Tournament dwarfs the NBA for the month of March. It generates huge revenues. A recent Harris Poll revealed college football was the third-most popular sport in the country, trailing only the NFL and Major League Baseball.
The NCAA Tournament title game between UConn and Coach Cal’s Kentucky young’uns was played in front of a record national championship game crowd of 79,238. Everything was handled in a Super Bowl-esque professional way, except the players, the ones pulled from classes and their campuses for the spectacle.
For those who cling to the ideal of amateurism and the sanctity of the scholarship, which is a valuable and significant piece of collegiate athlete compensation, but still just a piece, listen to UConn star guard Napier. During the NCAA Tournament, he was asked about the landmark regional National Labor Relations Board decision that identified Northwestern football players as employees.
Napier told reporters that there are some nights he and his teammates go to bed hungry because of a combination of Draconian NCAA rules stipulations and their impoverished economic backgrounds.
“As student-athletes we get utilized for what we do so well,” said Napier. “We’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities, but at the end of the day that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food.”
Based on Napier’s remarks, the NCAA got lampooned by Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” last Thursday. In a trenchant satire, Stewart called the NCAA a “non-profit monopoly.”
The NCAA is becoming a punch line. It’s too bad the joke is still on the student-athletes.
Bowlsby, the former athletic director at Stanford, was the lone member of the panel at the Final Four who admitted the NCAA has strayed a bit from its mission. He said the NCAA should be “about degree completion and about getting done what needs to get done on campus.”
He is an affable, reasonable, erudite voice. So is Emmert.
But they’re trying to defend the indefensible, so they end up making pretzel-logic arguments and sending out talking-points memos.
One simple route for the NCAA, at least with the power conference schools, would be to allow an athlete like Johnny Manziel to do endorsements or sign memorabilia and maintain eligibility.
This way the NCAA can say the payment of athletes beyond the full cost of attendance — the movement to bump up money to pay for basic things like a slice of pizza — becomes a meritocracy.
Let the market decide who gets highly compensated for playing professional-collegiate athletics.
“Yeah, I think that’s going to be part of the debate that the membership is going to have to have, whether or not they want to change the basic model,” said Emmert. “The principle that I keep hearing again and again from universities is that this has to be about student-athletes, not about paid professionals. People want to make sure that they have the ability and the resources to be successful as students. That includes the debate around miscellaneous expenses and full cost of attendance, and how you fund that, I think, becomes an interesting part of the discussion.”
If you’re an aspiring musician at the Berklee College of Music, you can take a paid gig to play and still keep attending school. It’s not that complicated, NCAA.
Student-athlete might be an oxymoron, but there are too many smart folks in college sports not to see that the current model can’t be repackaged.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.