NCAA touts amateurism rules over open market, but which is more corrupt?


Mark Emmert and the NCAA have found themselves under considerable scrutiny over the past year. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist September 20, 2013

The argument for maintaining amateurism in college sports is weak, weaker than NCAA President Mark Emmert’s second chin when he intones disingenuous nonsense like, “If you’re going to come to us, you’re going to be a student.” This weekend, Texas A&M will make another few hundred thousand dollars on the grass-stained back of Johnny Manziel, who each Saturday lightly exchanges his role as a “student” for his role as a commercial mule dragging along the $10 billion industry that pays Emmert’s $1.7 million salary. If Manziel can’t earn money, then it’s time to tear up Emmert’s check, too.

The bold statement that students should be students was the gist of Emmert’s latest speech on the state of college sports, delivered at Marquette this week. Each time Emmert speaks, it becomes more apparent just how empty the pieties of the NCAA are, and how inevitable is its destruction as a governing authority.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The only disappointing thing about the NCAA’s demise is the slow pace of it, which allows the current crop of overpaid administrators to continue to scavenge undeserved livings off athletes who work 60-hour weeks, and who are called cheats if they accept any cash for it. The NCAA and its arcane 400-page rulebook, which criminalizes athletes for daring to view college as an avenue to professions, cannot fold too soon. To replace it, we need . . . what?

How about nothing? That’s right, nothing. What if college athletics became an open market?

Let’s look at that doomsday scenario. What would happen?

The Post Sports Live crew previews Maryland's match-up against West Virginia on Saturday and debates the merits of wide receiver Stefon Diggs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

The first thing that would happen is that athletes would regain their rights — basic ones, such as the right to representation, the right to labor and the right of due process. Under the current system, they have none of the above. “They’re serfs,” says Taylor Branch, whose 2011 book about the NCAA, “The Cartel” has inspired a documentary that will debut Oct. 16, “Schooled: The Price of College Sports.”

Whether you agree with all of Branch’s ideas or not, his central point is irrefutable: No reform can take hold so long as the system is built on dishonesty and denial of rights. Amateurism is a creaking old code that dates from the 1900s, when Victorian elitists didn’t want to compete with the “great unwashed” masses. It contains about as much justice and reason as stoning women for losing their virginity.

“Everything else is consequential,” he says. “If you say that amateurism rules are and always have been bogus, and void them, then the system would evolve more honestly. No reform is going to work if we don’t start with the question of rights first.”

When actress Natalie Portman went off to Harvard, or actor James Franco went to UCLA, nobody told them they weren’t allowed to perform for money while they were there. Or that they couldn’t have an agent. Nobody told Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs that as long as they were undergraduates they couldn’t make any money from Internet inventions, or they wouldn’t be regarded as “real” students. Yet this is what the NCAA does to athletes.

Without a system that rests on basic rights for college athletes, every reform, from Academic Progress Rates to streamlining the rulebook, just runs into the sewer that is the NCAA, a supposed nonprofit educational system that in reality is a vast subterranean economy in which all of the adults, from bowl officials to college presidents, are engaged in a relentless pursuit of profits.

“You say it’s about education while you steal the money from the people who produce all the value and sacrifice their bodies,” Branch said.

If we give basic rights to college athletes, and diminish the NCAA into a body that simply organizes competitive schedules and hands out trophies, what would happen?

Let’s look at the consequences of an open market.

One awful supposed consequence of doing away with the NCAA amateur code is that the next time a Johnny Manziel opened his door to a recruiter, he would be able to say what you or me, or Natalie Portman says, which is, “What are you offering?”

The assumption is that bidding wars would ensue, with universities offering cash as well as scholarships. I’m not so sure.

Schools don’t really want to pay players. Emmert and college presidents have violently resisted the notion, under the guise that it’s wrong or immoral. But that’s not the real reason. They resist it because it would open universities to workers’ compensation and regulatory nightmares, and there is no feasible way to institutionally pay revenue-sport players without killing scholarships in non-revenue sports.

The far more likely scenario is the one we already have: Wealthy alumni would create independent funds for supplementing players’ scholarships with some cash income. The market would evolve: Alumni would have to decide how much to pay a quarterback vs. a left guard. Only now, it would be above board, declarable income. Furthermore, recruiters and alumni might do a better job of selling the real and immense value of athletic scholarships, which can amount to a quarter-million dollars worth of non-cash goods and training over four years. We’ve done a poor job of explaining to athletes that they already are getting paid.

The doomsdayers claim that this would create an unhealthy imbalance between rich and poor schools. Really? We already have Division I schools with $5 million budgets trying to compete with budgets of $155 million.

Another awful consequence of an open market is that star players would be entitled to the licensing from their own likenesses, a prospect that may come sooner rather than later if Ed O’Bannon wins his lawsuit against the NCAA. At the moment, all that licensing money goes to the NCAA and athletic departments, to the tune of about $4 billion annually. ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player who also has a law degree, has embarrassed the NCAA on this with relentless brilliance.

Why exactly is it that Texas A&M gets to profit from Manziel’s jersey number, but he is a rule breaker for selling his own signature? And exactly how does this affect his education? Answer: “It doesn’t,” Bilas says. “And if you allowed a player to cut legitimate business deals, you might actually have more leverage over him, because if he gets suspended or kicked off the team, he loses his contracts.”

Still another dreaded consequence is that athletes would be entitled to representation. Instead of agents paying players under the table in order to obtain them as clients, guess what? Players would retain agents above the table, enter into legitimate business deals with trained professionals.

So would an open market really corrupt college sports and destroy their educational value? Or would it actually plant them on a much less corrupt ground?

Over the years I’ve suggested a number of reform ideas of my own: give athletes academic credits for the enormous amount of time they spend studying their craft; design academic core curriculums that would allow them to get degrees in sports-performance majors; make college coaches prove the content of their teaching by requiring them to teach courses to the general student body. But none of these will get anywhere without first restoring basic rights and respect to athletes.

In 2011, Emmert convened a “summit” to discuss issues plaguing college athletics and find solutions. Recently he issued a call for another one. He has yet to invite a single athlete.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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