The NCAA’s cheerleaders within the national media are correct: the Commission on College Basketball, formed to suggest major changes to the structure of college basketball (and, indirectly, college sports as a whole), was never intended to take on the idea of player compensation.
So this morning’s official recommendations — asking the NBA to change its one-and-done rule, suggesting harsher punishments for coaches caught cheating, and telling the NCAA to pay “serious attention to regulating summer [basketball] programs” — shouldn’t have been surprising. The commission was asked to figure out how to fix a sport for an organization that lives in a different plane of reality from ours and, within those boundaries, did a decent job.
But let’s just say that making recommendations without acknowledging the single biggest issue facing all of college athletics is like making recommendations to fight climate change without changing any human behavior. It is a waste of time. And, surprises or no, you can perhaps forgive some of us for feeling like pointing that out.
Those in charge of college sports continue to go out of their way to avoid reality.
This is 2018. College coaches are the highest-paid state employees all over the country. Assistant coaches are making seven digits per year at a lot of schools. The weight rooms continue to get bigger, the football complexes prettier and more obscene. This is not the same industry that existed six-plus decades ago, when the NCAA crafted the term “student athlete” to avoid having to pay workers’ compensation.
The NCAA classified their athletes as such in order to strengthen the public’s perception that such individuals were students of the university and not employees.
However, contrary to its literal meaning, the NCAA’s ulterior purpose for creating the term student athlete was to disguise and prevent any thought that the athlete and university shared an employment relationship. Ultimately, the term student athlete was crafted as a shield to protect the NCAA from potential workers’ compensation claims. This of course was a warranted and legitimate business strategy, and without it college athletics could not have evolved into its modern day form. Yet because of the massive influx of television and marketing dollars over the last two decades, the burden has shifted back on the NCAA to prove that student athletes should not be classified as employees under modern labor law.
This structure has worked beautifully for the NCAA.
There’s no question about it. And honestly, it’s helped us — the popularity of college sports has opened up an industry for writing about college sports. We get to watch more of it now than ever before, and maybe we take that for granted.
But it’s also created two different versions of reality.
Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, who was a member of the Rice commission:— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) April 25, 2018
"Here's the model we're defending. College athletics is young people pursuing degrees on campus, playing sports and through that activity, we hope, learning and growing."
More from ND's Fr. Jenkins: "We could think of it as second-tier, maybe a third tier professional league. If the direction we go, or the direction someone wants to go is to pay these players, that's what it will become. .....— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) April 25, 2018
Final from ND's Fr. Jenkins: "What our commission believes, I think what the NCAA believes is that the interest in college sport is due to the fact that these are students pursuing degrees."— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) April 25, 2018
Notre Dame’s president wants us to believe that fan interest in college sports comes from “the fact that these are students pursuing degrees.” Meanwhile, his football team’s Twitter account has been relentlessly promoting the draft stock of some of its recent star athletes.
It has also been posting cross-branded tweets of sorts, promoting both its athletes and its shoe company of choice.
Now, the point isn’t to yell, “BEHOLD, THE HYPOCRISY.”
To be sure, it would feel really good. But I don’t want to pretend that those who run the Notre Dame Twitter account are actually doing anything wrong. They’re not. They’re promoting their brand. They’re among the few acknowledging that their brand is aided by their players making the pros.
Getting guys drafted means positive exposure, which could yield better recruiting. Better recruiting could result in getting more guys drafted, which could yield even better recruiting. Wins would theoretically accompany all that recruiting. That helps both the brand and the coaches. This is college athletics in 2018.
And all I really ask is for an acknowledgement of reality.
I made my thoughts on player compensation pretty clear in my 2017 college football commissioner platform.
One item in the 2014 Northwestern players’ list of unionization demands stood out to me: “Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players’ ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.”
In other words, they were looking for the Olympic model, an idea that’s floated around college athletics for a long time.
The Olympics’ international definition of amateurism permits amateur athletes access to the commercial free market. They are free to secure endorsement deals, get paid for signing autographs (Georgia fans are listening), etc.
NCAA and school administrators aren’t full of it when they talk about the logistical issues with paying athletes. We like to yell, “PAY FOR PLAY,” and hope someone figures it out, but the details are messy.
With the Olympic model, we don’t have to worry about paying a third-string defensive tackle or a redshirting tennis player the same as a Heisman candidate, because we aren’t the ones paying. We don’t have to involve as many tax forms, and we can lighten the NCAA’s workload somewhat.
If we open up opportunities for endorsements and other “commercial opportunities,” we might eliminate the need for a salary structure altogether.
I don’t want to pretend like this is a perfect solution or that there aren’t drawbacks or that there wouldn’t need to be regulations. But we should be having a conversation about those concerns, not forming commissions to read rules aloud.
Nothing drives me crazier than having the same conversation over and over again when we’re driving along reality’s access road. It is a waste of time — a lucrative waste of time — and so was the Commission on College Basketball.