The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NCAA’s noxious behavior has done the impossible: Unite political ideologies.

Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. celebrates during a victory over Kansas in Tuesday’s State Farm Champions Classic. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The NCAA has become an encastled organization that puts its own wealth and interests ahead of athletes. No one buys its sanctimonious championing of “the collegiate model” anymore, the disingenuously lofty stance that to allow a college kid to earn an honest dollar is somehow cheapening. Boy, is it windy up on that high ground. But college sports leaders are about to be blown down by public opinion.

This is an organization that denies athletes even the smallest liberty. Literally a day before the opening of the basketball season, it destroyed the hopes and preparations of several transfers by suddenly denying them permission to play, for fear that changing schools might lead to a form of free agency.

“We are at a loss as to how this decision aligns with a mission of prioritizing the well-being of student-athletes,” a “stunned” Tennessee Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer said after men’s basketball player Uros Plavsic was told he would be penalized with an entire year of ineligibility for leaving Arizona State when a fellow Serbian coach departed the program.

The NCAA is an entity that has to be restrained by threat of law from abusing athletes’ rights to their own names and likenesses and that reforms only hedgingly, grudgingly and deceitfully. It’s a body that has become so universally offensive to the nose that even politicians on the opposite poles have formed a consensus against it. Liberal California Gov. Gavin Newsom, conservative Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and moderate Republican senator Mitt Romney of Utah are all championing state and federal legislation to curb its maltreatment of athletes.

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That rare political harmony is the subject of curiosity to the founders of Purple Strategies, a prominent bipartisan reputation-management and communications firm, who see raw indicators of strong anti-NCAA sentiment and broad support for athlete-protection laws that are sweeping the country. The leaders of Purple are veterans of red and blue political campaigns, such as Alex Castellanos, who worked on campaigns for former president George W. Bush, and Mark Squier, who advised former presidential candidate Howard Dean and former Texas governor Ann Richards. I asked Squier what he would say if the NCAA was one of his political candidates.

“I’d say they were underwater,” he said.

Polling shows that public opinion runs against the NCAA on the issue of athletes’ rights to earn a fair dollar off their own likenesses. A recent poll out of Seton Hall found 60 percent of Americans think athletes should be allowed to profit from the use of their own name or image, such as by endorsing sneakers or apparel. A 2017 Washington Post/Massachusetts Lowell poll found that 66 percent of adults believe athletes should be paid if their name or image is used in NCAA merchandising.

In short, the NCAA has a massive credibility problem. The public isn’t buying the NCAA’s fallacious contention that such a thing would damage “the collegiate model.” They see university administrators for the canny fiscal pirates they are.

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If the public perceives the NCAA to be acting in opposition to its stated purpose — economically preying on athletes rather protecting them — “that’s a very precarious position for any organization and its brand,” Squier says. According to Purple’s managing director of reputation strategy, Robert Fronk, once the public suspects an organization's motives don’t align with its mission, “we often see a rapid decline in the public seeing that organization as indispensable.”

We all sense it: The NCAA’s chronic adversarial stance toward athletes has fatally weakened its moral authority. It fought a prolonged court fight against Ed O’Bannon over pirating his name in video games that flew in the face of fairness and common sense. It opposed with all of its political strength California’s legislation that will forbid the NCAA to restrict athletes’ rights to their name and likeness, scheduled to take effect in 2023.

Whatever people’s opinion may be about whether athletes should be directly paid, the one entity they should no longer trust to answer the question is the NCAA. Administrators worked long and hard to earn this distrust, with their fey preaching about the virtues of the collegiate model, while compiling a $500 million rainy day investment portfolio.

Here is the collegiate model: The NCAA demands that athletes drive billions of dollars like dray horses turning a wheel in a succession of televised properties — the top 25 college football teams produced $2.7 billion in revenue last season and the first College Football Playoff rankings are a prime-time showcase, according to Forbes — yet threatens their scholarships if they accept a single buck for an autograph.

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The former longtime executive director of the NCAA, Walter Byers, saw the organization for what it had become: a giant money launderer.

“Whereas the NCAA defends its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields, they actually are a device to divert money,” he wrote in his scathingly frank 1995 book “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.”

Among Byers’s late confessions was that the term “student-athlete,” which the organization loves to intone so solemnly, was devised to insulate colleges from providing long-term disability for work-related injuries.

It’s an intriguing question why it took so long for the rest of the public to see the NCAA for what it has become and to turn on it with such bipartisan force. But it seems to have something to do with natural rights. Pay to Play laws do not mandate that athletes should be directly paid; they merely forbid the NCAA from hijacking athletes’ rights to their own names and pictures. All other students have these rights, from young tech entrepreneurs to drama majors, as do you or me. Why shouldn’t athletes own themselves?

The name-and-likeness issue seems to have awoken a sense of fundamental injustice and with it a realization that for all these years, the “collegiate model” was nothing more than a licensing scam. But more important and damaging is the public’s larger recognition that the NCAA has become actively harmful. It has become something athletes must be protected from, if necessary, by law.