The NCAA has got it all under control

College football and college basketball are important earners for most Division I schools, and also help line the coffers of the NCAA, which stands to benefit from healthy, flourishing programs. But no year in recent memory had more public scandal or incompetence in NCAA lore than this one. Here we have the flaccidity of the NCAA, in two acts.

College sports have never had anyone in charge: A college football take

“There is no one in charge in college football. There likely never will be. One lie leading to another forms the bridge the present takes to the future.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve quoted that first sentence, from the 2011 edition of Spencer Hall’s annual season-opening essay on college football.

Six years later, it’s as apparent as ever: There is still no one in charge.

It’s not just that there likely never will be, though — there never has been. Organized, institutionalized, mass-produced college sports began when some New Jersey boys played a game somewhere between rugby and ultra-violent soccer in 1869. Rutgers, whose star was a wounded Civil War veteran, won. Princeton, captained by a future state Supreme Court Chief Justice, lost. Rutgers students chased Princeton’s players out of town. No one was in charge.

Almost four decades later, amid concerns by longtime football fan President Teddy Roosevelt after on-field deaths, the thing that would become the NCAA finally formed. Meanwhile, innovators like Walter Camp had been semi-reluctantly morphing the game into what we recognize as football, bending both to public outcry and tactical needs as coaches. No one was in charge.

The sport’s postseason grew from a parade invitational in Pasadena to dozens of meaningless bowls to bowls determining national championships. In 1978, Division I football split, with the lower half putting the NCAA in charge of its postseason. As for the upper half, which tried having computers and the media handle it and has since given the job to a silent room of suits: No one has ever been in charge.

For the NCAA, March Madness money soared. Its only role in major college football was to oversee its own rulebook. That ever-expanding document ensures athletes in all sports can work toward postseason events bearing NCAA sponsor branding, all without the athlete having to hassle with money of his or her own. The courts took decades to really start scrutinizing this, because no one was in charge.

The NCAA’s president makes Roger Goodell look like Adam Silver and isn’t even worth naming here. The organization’s one job — self-assigned — yields little more than reliably contradictory judgments that punish college athletes for meals, clothes, travel, and lodging, and usually not even the athletes who dared to accept a ride to the airport, but their successors at the same school. The NCAA spends years at a time doing this, ensnaring athletes at multiple colleges along the way, because no one is in charge.

Amateurism, brain injury, the higher education bubble, changes in live sports consumption by fans, demographic shifts, the end of the world, other legal challenges — take your pick. A hundred things have been bearing down on the booming, crooked, beautiful, staggering, heartbreaking, half-finished American beast since the beginning.

No one is in charge of college sports. It’s been true since day one, but 2017 was the year everyone realized it.

The NCAA can’t even uphold its stated values: A college basketball tale

On Oct. 13, the NCAA confirmed the long-held suspicions of cynics and realists across the country that it would not, in any way, be punishing the North Carolina men’s basketball program. This announcement came despite overwhelming evidence that numerous Tar Heel players had been steered toward sham courses since at least 1997.

The case resonated with the sports world for reasons beyond the fact that UNC can claim six college basketball national championship seasons, including the most recent. It resonated because the issue in question struck at the facade that the NCAA has hid behind since its inception:

This is all about education. This is all about degrees. This is all about aiding the progress of our country. This is all about the kids.

The NCAA’s logic in choosing not to punish North Carolina was essentially twofold. First, it said that the courses in question were available to the entire UNC student body, not just student athletes. Therefore, the classes — even if they did fail to meet the threshold of accepted standards for higher education — were not a special benefit to these players.

Second, the NCAA’s bylaws don’t allow it to judge the validity of a college course. If they did, it would create a dangerous situation in which the NCAA is determining whether courses suitable for credit at, say, Summit League schools hold equal value to those offered at Harvard.

In sum, there was obvious academic fraud going down for nearly two decades at North Carolina, but the NCAA decided that it was an issue that should be handled by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. (Editor’s note: SACS did briefly look into the North Carolina situation and ultimately chose not to punish the school, instead opting to apologize to the UNC Chancellor for the anxiety that their interest in the matter had caused).

When the NCAA gave its final word on UNC, it was also preparing to rule on Braxton Beverly, an NC State transfer from Ohio State.

Beverly, a talented 6-foot guard, had originally signed to play college basketball for the Buckeyes. Unlike the majority of freshmen headed for the hardwood, Beverly took the ambitious step of enrolling in classes that May so he could get a head start on his degree.

In June, the college basketball world was shocked when OSU announced that it had fired longtime head coach Thad Matta. This left Beverly, who had committed to the Buckeyes almost entirely for the chance to play for Matta, in an odd spot. He asked for his release in June, and after it was granted, he signed with NC State.

According to NCAA rules, any player who transfers schools as an undergraduate has to sit out a year of competition. Because Beverly had just started classes at Ohio State, he was ineligible to play as a true freshman for the Wolfpack — unless the NCAA granted him a waiver. Beverly seemed like exactly the sort of case that deserved an exemption. After all, he was only in that predicament because he took his academics more seriously than most.

Just about two hours after making its announcement regarding North Carolina, the NCAA officially denied Beverly’s waiver. He would have to sit out the entire 2017-18 season ... because he went to class.

Beverly appealed the ruling, but the NCAA denied him once again Oct. 30 despite widespread outrage. Then, on Nov. 14, the NCAA announced that it had once again reviewed Beverly’s situation, and that based on “additional information” had decided to let the freshman play in 2017-18. No word on what that “additional information” included has ever been brought to light.

It might have been the least-impressive figurative muscle flexing in the history of sports.

The UNC and Beverly fiascos beautifully illustrate the NCAA’s ability to regulate.

Two decades of academic fraud involving one of America’s most prestigious universities and one of college athletics’ most prominent programs? Not only do we wish we could do more, but we actually can’t do anything. A good player who wants to go from one good basketball program to another despite attending a couple of classes at the first of those two institutions? Let’s try to force that kid to sit out the season and turn him into a national story.

It might have been the least-impressive figurative muscle flexing in the history of sports.

All the NCAA did was prove it is useless in any positive sense. It defined itself as an entity whose only values are the enforcement of dubious regulations, and serving as a barrier between human beings and the compensation with which their work should be rewarded.

The NCAA’s inability to uphold its stated purpose was further driven home during the FBI’s probe into college basketball.

For years, the underbelly of slimy agents, shoe company influence, and payments to recruits had been college basketball’s worst-kept secret. For anyone who wishes to argue otherwise, check out Blue Chips (or at least read the plot section on its Wikipedia page) and note that the movie was released in 1994.

That gunk was finally surfaced by a bait trap dropped not by the NCAA, but by the FBI. The Bureau spent multiple years infiltrating the world of amateur basketball and obtaining hard evidence that shoe companies, agents, and college coaches have been working together to pay the families of America’s top recruits to get them to play for certain schools. In all, 10 men — including four assistants, all from power conference schools — were arrested.

In the weeks that followed, multiple assistant coaches, as well as Louisville’s Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino, were fired from their jobs. Internal investigations across the country resulted in a handful of players being held from action at the start of the 2017-18 season. Those investigations, as well as the FBI’s investigation, are ongoing and should continue to pull back the curtain concealing college basketball’s uglier side. It’s the first real and effective effort that has ever been made to clean up a problem that people have been complaining about for decades.

And what role has the NCAA played in this effort?

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

During the three years that the FBI was infiltrating the underworld of college basketball, the NCAA was unaware that any sort of investigation was taking place. They have since pledged to stay completely out of the FBI’s way until its investigation has concluded. You know, because involving the body that’s supposed to handle this type of thing seems like the only way this probe could fall apart.

You probably had some sneaking suspicion before 2017 that the NCAA was useless, but this was the year that put to bed any doubt. Until college athletics undergoes either an overhaul or a mass exodus, the NCAA will continue to do more harm than good for those it claims to be serving.

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