Another college basketball season has begun, as has a new chapter in a debate that is more wholesome than its subject: the academia-sports complex. Between now and March Madness — the NCAA basketball tournament whose broadcast rights reap about $1 billion a year — millions of people will be entertained by vertically unusual “student-athletes.” Some of them are accurately described as such, but all are so described because of prudence in the service of cupidity. As college athletes generate billions for others, the debate concerns the policy whereby the recipients of the revenue refuse to allow the players even a modest trickle of the torrent of money. The refusers say that their determination to hoard the wealth is altruism in defense of virtue. Really.
“Student-athletes” is a denotation concocted to insulate institutions of higher education from the potentially costly conclusion that their remunerative, but essentially unremunerated, athletes are university employees eligible for workers’ compensation when injured, and for other rights and benefits. Now, however, there is a serpent in the NCAA’s garden, where the head gardener is nicely compensated: In 2017, NCAA President Mark Emmert’s net pay was $2.9 million. He is paid to keep pristine the amateur status of young athletes who, like all athletes, have a small window for earning from their perishable talents.
The serpent is a California law, which 14 other states are already thinking about emulating. It forbids schools to prohibit their athletes from earning money from endorsements and some other services. In response, the NCAA has rushed to stall — allowing athletes to profit from their names and images, details to follow. This is a small but widening fissure in the NCAA’s crumbling wall of resistance to allowing athletes to be among those who profit from their talents.
A horrified Sen. Richard Burr from basketball-mad North Carolina — Burr is a Republican — has proposed a punitive tax on the scholarships of athletes who try to take such advantage of the free market. Evidently profiting from young people’s talents is only for older adults, such as the 39 football and basketball coaches who are the highest paid public employees in their states. Including in Burr’s state, where UNC’s basketball coach is projected to make $4.1 million this year, a tad more than its football coach.
Two years ago, the NCAA shrugged when a seven-year investigation — the Warren Commission’s investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination took fewer than 10 months — found that for almost two decades UNC administered a “shadow curriculum” of 188 fake classes, about half of them taken by athletes. The NCAA essentially said: Not our problem, the fraud was academic, not athletic, because some non-athletes took the courses.
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young might still win the Heisman Trophy as 2019’s premier college football player, which would have a significant cash value when he heads for the NFL. But his chances of winning it were damaged when he was suspended for two games. (He will return in time for Midwest Armageddon, aka the Nov. 30 Michigan game.) Young’s sin? Perhaps having a less-than-affluent family. He borrowed money from a “family friend” to pay living expenses and repaid the loan last summer. The NCAA’s more than 400 pages of arcane rules — they are compounds of complexity and vagueness — suggest that this loan might be an infraction. If Young’s family were affluent enough to support him, or if he were paid for the services he renders in the 102,780-seat OSU stadium (three other college stadiums seat more), he would not have landed in hot water.
The NCAA, the Inspector Clouseau of virtue-enforcement, might ponder the lament of a few University of Louisville students and alumni: A court recently said, sensibly, that they cannot sue the prostitute who wrote a book about her “services” for the school’s basketball players and prospective recruits. The litigious students and alumni say her book has exposed them to public ridicule when they wear Louisville’s logo.
A multibillion-dollar entertainment industry insinuated into higher education is a permanent invitation to ridicule. And paying players money commensurate with their value-added would open a Pandora’s box of new mischiefs, from recruiting to assigning value to the anonymous left tackle who protects the glittering quarterback, and saving crumbs for the volleyball teams. But what exists is a cafeteria of embarrassments.
When March Madness’ winning players cut down the nets, they will do so atop (The Bulwark’s Tim Miller reports) a Werner ladder using Fiskars scissors.
These are two products from “corporate champions and sponsors” of the NCAA, the stern guardian of amateurism.