SvoNotes: Where The NCAA Has Gotten It Wrong

The NCAA model continues to be under scrutiny, especially as the Ed O'Bannon trial continues on. In this piece,'s Jeff Svoboda takes on the NCAA's false logic about its role in the two major sports.

Dearest NCAA,

I like you. I really do.

Sure, you make some very poor decisions sometimes. In fact, you're pretty well known among sports fans as a walking PR disaster. There are definite ways to improve your system, and it's good that you've come to that realization even if it's a few years too late.

But all in all, after spending years around college athletics, I really, truly think it's a noble mission. On the whole, the system is good for the vast majority of those who take part.

However, it's time to face reality.

I came to this decision yesterday while reading president Mark Emmert's deposition in the ongoing NCAA vs. O'Bannon trial, which will determine whether college sports needs to change its system in order to allow athletes to profit on their names, images and likenesses.

Emmert has never been known as the world's best public speaker, so there was bound to be something interesting in the transcript. And this, right away, grabbed my eye.

"The state of intercollegiate athletics has been and to a certain extent remains in a position where it needs to reinforce the core values of intercollegiate athletics," Emmert said. "And those core values are that student-athletes are first and foremost students who happen to be athletes and not the other way around."

Expanding even more, Emmert described the principal identifying characteristic of a college athlete is that, "They are a student who has come to collegiate athletics for the purposes of getting an education."

This, of course, is balderdash.

I'm not saying it's not a lofty goal. I think it's a societal good that many of the best athletes of our time are put are afforded the ability to receive a free (or heavily discounted, whatever the case may be) education. This cannot be overlooked and often is in this discussion.

But let's call a spade a spade here. At the highest levels, college athletes are recruited more for their athletic abilities than anything else. It's not that a program like Ohio State football doesn't want players who excel in the classroom – but you better be able to run a 4.4 40 or bench press 225 pounds or you're not going to make the cut.

In addition, there are no other developmental options for aspiring American football or basketball players than NCAA athletics. Even if it doesn't purport to be, the NCAA is the de facto developmental ground for anyone who wants to make a living playing those two sports.

So to sit here and say that the players in these sports – the ones who, we cannot forget, produce the massive revenues at play here – are "first and foremost students who happen to be athletes" is to deny basic reality.

It's not necessarily the NCAA's fault that it is the developmental league of choice for those sports – the NFL and NBA have openly worked with college athletics to ensure players must spend a certain amount of developmental time at universities – though it's obviously not something college sports has ever tried to hide from, either.

The current model for football and men's basketball is pretty unique from any other arrangement. If you're an elite baseball or hockey player, you can play in college, or you can sign with a professional organization when you reach a certain age and get drafted. If you're an elite young golfer or tennis player, there's nothing stopping you from making money whenever you so desire. Overseas, if you're good at soccer, congrats; Wayne Rooney made his EPL debut at 16, and you can, too!

But if you want to play professional football or basketball in America, you have to go to college. It's sort of a happy accident of the way those systems developed, as the explosion in popularity of first college football and then college basketball took place well before there was a market for professional action in either of those sports. The result is what we have now, a mish-mash creation that nobody would have drawn up if it hadn't happened organically.

In the meantime, the NCAA has had its cake and tried to eat it, too. Again, it might not be the NCAA's fault that it's the only way to the pros, but it has never shied away from brazenly maximizing what are now massive revenues produced by the interest in those two sports.

And when athletics budgets exploded over the past two decades – Ohio State's nearly quintupled from 1993 to 2013 – the NCAA didn't exactly race to make sure that those actually producing those revenues got a bigger share of the pie, all the while making money directly from things like jersey sales and video-game likenesses. There's no way to spin that other than profits that came directly from an athlete's likeness, and there's a reason the public eventually came to have a pretty strong distaste for such enterprises.

The NCAA is finally taking steps to be more equitable toward its athletes. The video games are gone, some schools are pulling away from jersey sales, and cost-of-attendance stipends are well on their way to being implemented perhaps as soon as August. These are reforms that simply needed to happen, though we could argue all day if they come close to doing enough for some college athletes.

I've been a supporter of the NCAA system over the years simply because I've equated it to the famed Winston Churchill quote about democracy – "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

OK, so no other forms of college sports have been tried, but I think something important would be lost with most other suggestions. I think those who seem so intent on tearing down the current system undervalue the training, benefits and publicity athletes do receive (with more to come in that regard); don't understand how much of the money made by college athletics goes back into the system to help athletes; don't fully appreciate the educational opportunities college sports affords both in the revenue sports and Olympics sports; and undervalue how the publicity that being associated with major universities adds to the popularity of the games.

On the other hand, I think stipends are long overdue simply because that is money that is available to every other student on campus. I think making sure athletes are fed properly is a no brainer, something the NCAA should have allowed long before April. Allowing athletes to make some profit on their names, images and likenesses – for signing autographs, for appearing in advertisements or for jersey sales – also makes sense on many levels.

But here's the stark reality. For years, the NCAA has denied an essential truth – that it is a developmental league featuring the best and brightest young talent in its two most popular sports, all the while making money off of that very fact.

In essence, the NCAA has tried to be all things to all people. It has tried to wring every dollar it could out of its most popular sports, aided and abetted by two professional leagues who have received cheap player development out of the deal, while being much too slow to come to the realization that it needed to divvy up the pie in much more fair manner.

But it has also provided those players and millions more a valuable educational opportunity they might not have had, all the while providing publicity that has helped those athletes and sports reach a higher level of interest and success.

Will the courts allow the NCAA to continue to operate in a way in which it can effectively do both?

We'll soon find out.

But it would do itself a favor to accept the reality that it already has.

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