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Game On / Death to the NCAA

It’s time for this bloated bureaucracy to step aside

Question: who benefits from the NCAA?


For many, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is essentially a benevolent institution that oversees athletic competition in twenty-four different sports for men and women. There are hundreds of schools participating and thousands of athletes in any given season.


The NCAA is the arbiter of Title IX, the portion of the 1972 Education Amendments Act that gave equal rights in education to women and, overnight, caused women’s participation in athletics to explode. It’s also known for high profile marquee events, namely the football bowl season every winter and the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament, a.k.a. March Madness. It’s those events, and the marketing surrounding them, that really drive the organization.


But the NCAA isn’t exactly as benevolent as it might wish to appear. Over the years, it has wielded its power to keep itself and the coaches and administrators at its member schools rich and powerful. In 2017, the NCAA reported close to $1.1 billion in revenue, almost all of that coming from football and basketball. Out of that revenue, they paid $560.3 million to Division I member schools, usually in the form of payouts for advancing in various championships. In the NCAA basketball tournament, for instance, a school makes about a million dollars for its league and for itself each time it wins a game.


The men’s basketball and football coaches at Division I schools, especially those in Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and the SEC) all make well over a million dollars. Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, earns over nine million dollars a season.


In thirty-nine of the fifty states, the highest paid state employee is a basketball or football coach. These men are making millions to oversee their programs, far outstripping what other coaches or professors at the university are making. Athletic departments are reaping the rewards, as well. Administrations are ballooning with more compliance officers, gift officers, and assistant athletic directors added to their staffs. Salaries for those positions are comfortable; most athletic directors make upwards of six or seven figures a year.


Schools spend lavishly on their facilities, upgrading stadiums every few years and building huge complexes of weight rooms, meeting rooms, and practice rooms—each more ridiculous than the last. Clemson, which has played in three of the past four football National Championship games, built a facility in 2016 that features a two-story playground slide for players to use instead of stairs.


Jam-packed Ohio Stadium, capacity 102,082, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, who play in the Big Ten, one of the Power Five conferences


Astute readers will notice that one group has yet to be mentioned in this discussion of money in big time college athletics. It is the group that is assuming all of the risk and getting little to none of the reward: the players.


Yes, most of these football and basketball players are on scholarships that cover tuition, books, housing, and some food. But that’s a pittance compared to what they bring in to their schools. In 2016, the top ten athletic departments brought in over $140 million each, mostly from the efforts of the 120 or so players on their revenue sport teams. Meanwhile, those players, especially those headed to the pros, are risking their future careers and income playing for free at colleges and universities.


It’s not a theoretical argument. When Willis McGahee was drafted by the Bills, he fell to them at number twenty-three, despite being a consensus top-five pick. He fell because he blew out his knee in his final game of his college career; the drop cost him millions of dollars on his first contract, not to mention how his career could be shortened or diminished by the lingering effects of that injury.


Players have little agency. If they don’t performwell or get hurt, their scholarships can vanish. If they don’t like their coach and want to transfer, coaches can block the moves and end their careers.


All of this is wrapped up in the NCAA’s evershifting definition of amateurism: a nineteenth century idea about the platonic ideals of sport that really came into being as a way to prevent the lower classes from making money as athletes. It exists today to help the NCAA funnel the money toward the administration instead of labor.


Amateurism as an idea is about keeping sport pure by keeping money out of it—which is already an odd thought, given that sports are a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States—but it isn’t even consistently enforced. The NCAA currently allows five- and six-figure payments to swimmers for winning medals at the Olympic games, it allows gifts of up to $550 to college football players, tennis players can keep purses from some tournaments they play outside of school, and the list goes on. What is, and what is not, a permissible payment under the NCAA’s byzantine rules is almost anyone’s guess.


The whole thing is a cartel designed to keep people like Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA (who made $2.4 million last year), rich on the backs of young athletes.


NCAA has outlived its usefulness. The time has come for us to end the sham of amateurism and start compensating these players for the millions of dollars they bring to their institutions.


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