But, White asked, so what? It was a small price to pay, he suggested, for holding off rampant commercialism at the door. Profit- and load-sharing was “an essential aspect of maintaining some balance of strength among competing colleges and of minimizing the tendency to professionalism in the dominant schools.”
White was probably naive to argue that too much commerce compromised the basic educational purpose of college football; frankly, that has been compromised since the 1880s. But he was not naive about the distorting power of TV money, or his suspicion that the application of free-market principles to the college game could actually have anti-competitive and unfair results.
The NCAA, he pointed out, acts in all sorts of restricting ways we don’t accept from a normal business. We give it the power to limit scholarships, the pay of athletes and the number of coaches, establish minimum academic standards and regulate recruitment, length of eligibility, squad size, practice schedules, etc. That’s all for a simple reason: to foster fairness, some semblance of ethical restraint.
If it’s okay to restrict athletes from making money for playing on TV for ethical reasons, then surely we should restrict the universities that rake in multimillions, he wrote. Remove restrictions, and “unlimited [TV] appearances by a few schools would inevitably give them an insuperable advantage over all others and in the end defeat any efforts to maintain a system of athletic competition among amateurs who measure up to college scholastic requirements.”
Was White right? Not about everything. His faith that the NCAA could decently self-regulate was probably misplaced. It’s sort of like saying the oil industry is in need of restraints — and letting Exxon Mobil and Shell make their own rules.
Still, White’s dissent is worth looking at because it makes an important point in ringing language: The game needs governance. Without some form of effective oversight, whether by Congress or some other body, it’s the mess he predicted.
One thing is impossible to miss in reading White’s opinion: The NCAA he wrote about, the authority so strong that it took a Supreme Court decision to overturn, is gone. Long gone.