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Jock Talk: The NCAA needs a reboot

by by Roger Brigham

NCAA President Mark Emmert
NCAA President Mark Emmert  

Perhaps we have all come to expect too much of the NCAA. Perhaps we should stop thinking those four letters stand for National Collegiate Athletic Association and accept its current reality: "No Compassion, Action, or Accountability."

Oh, the NCAA has accountability in the sense it accepts checks and provides bookkeeping when it manages the multimillion-dollar broadcasting contracts it signs, and coordinates the scheduling of tournaments and the awarding of lucrative post-season venues. And yeah, when its members get caught in FBI investigations that indicate that people who are already really well paid are paid even more off the books, and that unpaid student-athletes are surreptitiously getting paid - well, yeah, when that stuff hits the fan, the NCAA swiftly acts by telling folks it is disturbed by the allegations, will look into them and - hey, isn't this run in the men's Division I basketball tournament by Loyola Chicago really, really cool?

The problems that plague the NCAA and its member schools are not isolated. They are examples of the problems that affect modern sports in general and elite, money-infused spectator sports in particular - problems that undermine the incredibly positive aspects sports has on its participants by injecting those sports with the cesspool elements of fear, sexism, ego, greed, lust, and exploitation.

But there is no need for the fat cats of the NCAA and its members to be either passive bystanders or active perpetrators. The NCAA has the position, gravitas, and wherewithal to require/badger/strong-arm/compel/bluster its member institutions into living up to their promises to work for the betterment of student-athletes rather than to thrive on the exploitation of those athletes.

The official NCAA website is a marvel of Pollyanna marketing. In muted, calming colors, it informs us that although colleges make up its membership, it is devoted to the student-athletes who attend those colleges and represent them in sports. Dig deep into its pages and you will be casually informed that the nonprofit organization rakes in about $1 billion annually, mostly from broadcasting rights for events such as the men's Division I basketball tournament, and will be assured, with little documentation or specification, that that money is ploughed back to invest in the lives of the student-athletes that make the NCAA possible.

But as Ohio State economist Jay Zagorsky recently wrote on his blog, the NCAA, which pays President Mark Emmert $1.9 million to oversee operations, keeps about $35 million in profits annually and has about $300 million in its savings account.

Tax exempt, mind you.

"I believe March Madness has nothing to do with education and a great deal to do with marketing," Zagorsky wrote. "And that's fine, it's just like the NFL playoffs or the MLB's World Series. Except perversely, the organization that runs March Madness gets tax-exempt status."

Nothing new here. Do a Google search for "NCAA" and "nonprofit" and you will find sportswriters and other pundits have been bemoaning the money machine that constitutes the NCAA for ages. Damn straight its concerns are commercial, not academic.

All that cash and all that stature because the NCAA is ostensibly there to assure us players are treated fairly and properly, and that schools are all competing on the up and up - yet what is the reaction of the NCAA cartel when problems come to light?

Sports apparel companies funnel funds to assistant coaches and players on the down-low - the NCAA arches its eyebrows and says it will check it out. Schools arrange for cushy courses to supplant tough academic challenges for elite athletes to keep them out of the classroom and on the playing field - the NCAA says, "tsk, tsk," and says that's not right. Athletes report coaches and trainers are sexually harassing and assaulting them under the pretext of bettering their careers - the NCAA rolls its collective eyes and says that's not our problem. Women's sports get second-class training facilities and coaches salaries while resources are lavished on men's programs - the NCAA yawns unblinking and says nothing.

And so we end up with the FBI and the country's criminal and civil courts getting involved. We end up with the NCAA focused on recovery of public confidence as a public relations concern.

That's so reactive, not proactive. That's so focused on the past rather than the future.

Problem is, the entire system of athletic "scholarships" and elite men's sports teams composed of enrolled students is founded on antiquated notions of amateurism. It is as oxymoronic as a whorehouse virgin.

In theory, college sports exist as an extracurricular activity in students' lives: an activity to help round out a balanced education and personal development. At the highest, money-driven levels, they, too, often become the central driving force in participants lives; feed the egos of rabid boosters, and fans; and are marketing tools for the names of the schools splashed across the players' jerseys.

Too often, the drive to steer money into those elite programs ends up diverting resources away from less marketing-rich programs. Too often, vulnerable youth who have turned to the adults in charge of their sports careers fall prey to slimy predators who masquerade as mentors. Too often, student-athletes graduate with paper diplomas but not the educations they are supposed to represent.

Screw guidelines. The NCAA should be focused on developing and enforcing mandatory best practices, with penalties and suspensions for violations. It should recognize that every athlete's life matters and should be supported, trained and educated equally. It should be leading the parade, not following afterward with a broom to sweep up the mess.

For now, we have Condoleezza Rice leading a blue-ribbon committee; the FBI slapping handcuffs on basketball coaches; gymnasts suing Michigan State for its indifference to sexual assaults; and Minnesota-Duluth coughing up a court-ordered $3.7 million judgment to its former women's hockey coach rather than treat its women's program on par with its men's program. And we'll continue to have reiterations of this from now until eternity unless the NCAA grows up and acts.

Until then - go Loyola Chicago!

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