The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Arike Ogunbowale dances with gusto, the NCAA sidesteps with cowardice

Arike Ogunbowale cuts down the net after Notre Dame’s national championship last month. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Sally Jenkins

Arike Ogunbowale is still dancing, and the NCAA is still standing. Buildings didn’t collapse; Mark Emmert didn’t crumble into chalk dust; and the golden dome of Notre Dame didn’t topple. On the contrary, the only thing damaged by Ogunbowale’s turn on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” is the NCAA’s ability to rationalize an unconstrained monopoly that illegally controls the stage and box office for college athletes.

“You make me really want to join you, baby!” judge Bruno Tonioli crowed at Ogunbowale.

Every athlete in the NCAA should join her in the rumba line.

This is what the NCAA fought so hard for so long to forbid? A sneakered kid doing a spangled salsa in 4-4 time on a cheap mirror-ball set for a chance to make some extra prize money? But, of course, it was never about the kid. If it were about the kid, the NCAA would be more worried about Ogunbowale’s sleep patterns: She took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles after the show’s season premiere Monday night to make a 9:30 a.m. class in South Bend, Ind. The NCAA has never worried about overburdening its athletes. It’s too preoccupied with raking off their earnings.

You may wonder why you should watch “Dancing With the Stars” in the midst of the spring rush of NBA and NHL playoffs. The simple answer is because Ogunbowale’s performance has a chance to change the college sports landscape (and along the way Josh Norman will enchant you with his attempt to turn muscle into rhythm and line).

Arike Ogunbowale on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ forces NCAA into tricky two-step

For years, the NCAA has fought clench-fisted, mean-spirited court battles to control the names, likenesses and activities of college athletes. Just last summer, it declared Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye ineligible because he monetized his own YouTube channel. But in a move more sudden than a cha-cha sidestep, the NCAA suddenly reversed course and granted Notre Dame’s buzzer-beating Ogunbowale a tentative “waiver” to trade on her new stardom on “Dancing.” Why this liberal new precedent with Ogunbowale? Because for once, the NCAA needed a kid more than the kid needed the NCAA. The tilt in that leverage may become permanent.

For years, the NCAA has acted like professionalism is worse than isotope poisoning. But now we know that was just a cover story to protect all the illicit coin. What a racket: Under NCAA Bylaw 12.4.1, athletes are forbidden from compensation for “publicity, reputation, fame or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletics ability.” Meanwhile, coaches, athletic directors and vice chancellors make seven-figure salaries off the kids’ sweat and take the skim from $10 billion in deals with television and apparel companies. An ongoing FBI investigation has led to 10 arrests for bribery and money laundering in men’s college basketball. What’s that smell? It’s the stink of the books cooking.

So the NCAA desperately needs Ogunbowale. It needs her clean-scented stardom. It needs the afterglow of those last-second shots she hit in the Final Four to beat U-Conn. and Mississippi State. It needs her unaffected lamplit smile, and her playfulness as she tries to master promenade steps and high heels with her partner, Gleb Savchenko, all the while finishing up her spring semester.

“I don’t know how he thinks I’m going to dance in high heels when I can barely walk in ’em,” she said.

But most of all, the NCAA needs Ogunbowale to remind the public that the collegiate model is worth defending, and that the enterprise is more than just crookery.

So laugh at “Dancing With the Stars” if you want, or call it a guilty pleasure, but it’s not a trivial exercise. The charm of the show lies in the fact that it explores whether certain skills and confidence are importable from one field to another. The answer is, not always. It’s fascinating which celebrities are remarkably liquid and which are cringingly stiff doing a fox trot.

But one thing it demonstrates for sure is that athletes are better than most at transference. And Ogunbowale, the first college athlete on the show, is a master class in transference. Her combination of energy and ease, her can-do-ness in the moment, is the direct result of 80 hours a week of dual responsibilities and pressures. This is a kid who brought a 3.5 GPA out of high school in Milwaukee while winning four state club titles in soccer.

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Those remarkable shots she hit to beat U-Conn. and Mississippi State to clinch a national championship were no freaks. She worked for them, she had confidence in them, and she deserved for them to go in. She is juggling the academic load of a junior at Notre Dame while sporting a national championship ring for one of the most demanding programs in the country, and on top of that, in the space of just a week she learned a highly trained dance and performed it on national television.

In doing so, she drove an absolute stake in the heart of the NCAA’s fallacious old reasoning. This is the NCAA’s first tentative experiment with allowing an athlete a little commercial liberty, and it’s an aggravatingly stingy one. She is not allowed to so much as promote “Dancing With the Stars” on social media, or appear with the rest of the cast on “Good Morning America.” Why? Why should this glittering advertisement for the term “student-athlete,” this extremely special brand of multifaceted achiever, this credit to her school and undeserved boon for the NCAA, have to suppress her light?

If the system were anything other than rigged, she would be allowed to cash in on her moment commercially and lay away for her future. Is there really any question left as to whether forbidding such an athlete to profit does “harm” to anyone but her? Should she really need the NCAA’s permission to show off the very best of herself and what she brings to a university? Should such a beautifully ephemeral creature really have to truncate her fleeting cultural moment, so some functionaries in suits can protect their revenue flow?

Watch Ogunbowale. Watch her try to master the cross-body lead, and the copa, and high heels. Watch her, because she is everything college athletics could be, and should be.