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Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Column: The hypocrisy of the NCAA

In what seems to be an increasingly frequent occurrence, the NCAA has been making headlines as its dated and oppressive practices are finally being legitimately questioned. Of course, once Americans’ craving for sports outweighs their curiosity about social justice, as it eventually does every time the NCAA is put on the hot seat, the organization will resume its status as the unopposed facilitator of college sports.  

But for now, bear with me. It is now abundantly clear that the NCAA is inadequate at its job, and doesn’t provide nearly enough support to their players, their most important asset.  

For the second time in the 2020-21 sports season, the NCAA is on the wrong end of a hashtag created by some of its biggest stars. As conferences were scrambling to decide how to play a football season in the fall, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, among others, started the #WeWantToPlay movement.  

Now, in the midst of March Madness, three Big Ten men’s basketball seniors — Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, Michigan’s Isiah Livers, and Rutgers’ Geo Baker — have come forward with a movement of their own: #NotNCAAProperty.

This is a potentially huge moment for college athletics. Not only are players rising up, but legislation is in the works that, if successful, could change the world of college sports in unprecedented ways. Several states are passing NIL (Name, image and likeness) bills, which would allow athletes to profit off their birthright — their name and what they look like. 

On March 31, the Supreme Court held a hearing about the so-called “amateurism” business model that is the NCAA. In addition, Sen. Cory Booker, who played tight end for Stanford, is working on passing a “College Athletes Bill of Rights.” This comprehensive legislation would allow players NIL rights but also include them in revenue sharing agreements, as well as implementing universal safety guidelines and compensation for injuries. This wave of activism threatens every value the NCAA has upheld for so long.

It is often argued that the coveted athletic scholarship given to athletes is enough compensation, more than enough even, for the work they put in and the money they generate.  

This is dead wrong. 

In reality, the athlete is only valuable to the NCAA when they can perform and create revenue. But many athletes sustain career-ending, life-altering injuries that they aren’t compensated for at all. An athletic scholarship doesn’t cover many of these associated medical bills, especially once the athlete’s eligibility expires and they can no longer generate cash for the NCAA.

So what does an athletic scholarship cover? The necessities, surely, like housing, equipment and food, right? Don’t be so certain. After winning the men's basketball national championship in 2014, University of Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier revealed in an interview he went to bed hungry some nights because he couldn’t afford to eat. This is damning evidence that an athletic scholarship isn’t enough, especially coming from the star of, by definition, 2014’s best college basketball team.

Many athletes are exceedingly financially strapped at home. They have families and children that they need to support in any way they can. Division-1 revenue sport athletes are simply not afforded the time or the resources to make this happen. When devoting hours that resemble an 18 credit schedule to their sport, and then taking actual credits for school, these athletes have very few feasible ways to help their family earn money on the side.  

This is exemplified by Josh Gordon, who resorted to slinging marijuana all across the state of Texas during his time playing wideout for the Baylor Bears. By his own estimate, he made $120k a year selling dope while in college. While that figure sounds rather glamorous, breaking the law just to get by as a college kid isn’t. Gordon just happened to be really good at his side hustle. Until he wasn’t, of course, when he was suspended by the university indefinitely in 2011 for failing a drug test.  

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For many athletes, the athletic scholarship is all you have, or at least all you have keeping you in school. But it’s not an unconditional gift. It can be jeopardized or revoked at any time, at the discretion of the university and the NCAA.

Despite the deception of the athletic scholarship, it's shocking the NCAA still tries to pretend that is the only “gift” given to their athletes. Linebacker Leo Lewis from Brookhaven, Mississippi received ten thousand dollars in cash to commit to Mississippi State the day before national signing day in 2015, documented in the SB Nation mini series “Foul Play.”  

Recruiting in college football can be more competitive than the games themselves.  Yet the NCAA has never addressed the underground recruiting economy and the practice of under-the-table transactions. But will they still hand out recruiting sanctions for the very thing they sweep under the rug? Of course!

The NCAA loves to ride its high horse of amateurism, but the notion that this billion-dollar organization isn’t professional is hilarious. The NCAA believes it should be able to define the distinction between professional and amateur. But the million dollar facilities and million dollar television deals don’t exactly scream amateur. The Oregon Ducks extravagant football headquarters checks in at $68 million. With top programs across the country, numbers like this are common. The Cincinnati Bengals don’t even have an indoor practice facility.

What the NCAA dreads so much is benefits to their athletes that could resemble “professional salaries,” as lead NCAA attorney Seth Waxman puts it. You know what sounds like a professional salary? The $9.3 million Dabo Swinney is paid per year to coach Clemson football. 

But it's not just the mastermind behind the Tigers’ dynasty that is paid so handsomely. College basketball and football coaches are the highest paid public employee in 40 of 50 states.

The NCAA’s stance hinges on their alleged belief that consumer demand would decline with a loss of amateurism. Somehow, it’s hard to fathom that the passion and devotion fans have been putting in for sports with century long rivalries would dwindle with more compensation for the players.  

If anything, athletes with licensed jerseys and commercial appearances would connect fans to the sport more. If a company wants a college athlete to represent them because of what they’ve accomplished in their sport, the athlete should be able to reap the benefits. Who doesn’t want to see Graham Mertz in a Kwik-Trip ad?

The incredibly high stakes of college sports makes it impossible to maintain the facade of amateurism. Oftentimes, the athletes are subjected to the worst end of this immense pressure while the coaches and administrators collect comfy salaries. Possibly the best professional punter of all time, Pat McAfee received death threats during his time at West Virginia. He missed two field goals in a game against Pittsburgh that would’ve sent the Mountaineers to the BCS national championship game. In what profession is that amount of stress not professional?  

Direct comparisons between college football and the NFL don’t help the NCAA’s case either. Since 2000, 20 NFL players have died while on a team roster. There’s a variety of tragic reasons, from vehicle accidents to homicide and suicide. In that time span, 30 college football players have died from illnesses caused by conditioning workouts alone.

For all its shortcomings in regards to their athletes’ interests, the NCAA’s glaring lack of cohesion is almost as concerning. In the fall, it took an exhaustive effort from some of college football’s best known prospects to create any sort of productive consensus on the upcoming season. Conferences were operating independently and the lack of an effective, central, governing body really hurt the organization of the season.

The NCAA’s oppressive policies have long overstayed their welcome in college sports. They’ve been operating in a way clearly detrimental to their athletes behind dated, hypocritical arguments. When the first director of the NCAA Walter Byers retired, he spoke on the “outmoded code of amateurism” that is college sports, “and (he) attributes that to, quite frankly, to the neo-plantation mindset that exists on the campuses of our country.” That statement is almost as alarming as the fact that 33 years later, not much has changed. No, Jordan Bohannon, Isaiah Livers and Geo Baker, you’re not NCAA property. It’s time for the NCAA to stop acting like it.

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