Is It End Game For The NCAA?

buildings near a water canal
NCAA Hall of Champions

THE BRICK ARCHES of the NCAA Hall of Champions loom large over Central Canal, just like the hazy, romantic conception of amateur-sports glory on display there looms over Indiana’s cultural memory. The National Collegiate Athletic Association employs more than 500 at its downtown offices, and it only seems appropriate that the state that gave the world Martinsville’s John Wooden and a collegiate home to Knute Rockne and Bobby Knight would host the bureaucratic brain trust for a college athletics system that fuels both university pride and a nearly $20 billion industry annually.

Which makes it all the more strange that most Americans informed enough to have an opinion on the matter seem to agree on one thing: What the NCAA actually does lies somewhere between “seriously flawed” and “comically evil.” From Republican-controlled Florida to Democratic California, state legislatures have passed laws checking its authority. Once-stodgy head coaches have advocated for major changes to the system. And no less than the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously in June that the NCAA’s cap on education compensation for players was not just unfair, but unconstitutional.

The NCAA has been around for nearly 12 decades, since 1906. But for the past half-century, a flood of money has transformed it from a small back-office operation overseeing paperwork and tournament brackets to the arbiters of a financial and media empire. With that flood, one of the NCAA’s duties has come under ever more scrutiny: how they police its flow, ever-vigilant that cash might clandestinely reach the “student-athletes” themselves, which would violate the sacrosanct principle of amateurism that sets college athletes apart from their professional counterparts.

For doing so, critics have accused the NCAA of being a stuffy, ass-covering bureaucracy, the sports-world equivalent of an economic cartel, and an exploitation machine that perpetuates structural racism for fun and profit. In mid-November, critics roasted the organization after it confirmed its decision to vacate 59 men’s basketball victories and a women’s tennis conference championship at the University of Massachusetts, where it found a paltry sum of “impermissible financial aid of about $9,100 to 12 athletes over three years,” per an ESPN report, an offense the school’s athletic director called “inadvertent and unintentional.”

But after the June decision in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, the organization admitted in effect that its rigid opposition to any form of financial compensation for college athletes left it on the wrong side of history, and changed a long-standing policy to allow those athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. That has led to localized deals that have ranged from the predictable—a sweet tea company signing deals with Auburn and University of Alabama stars—to the charmingly odd, like University of Kentucky linebacker Joshua Paschal swiping away candy from unsuspecting youths in a commercial for a local dentist.

The NCAA broke a century-old taboo by formally opening the door for players to share in the billion-dollar profits they generate. This past fall, it began to consider a draft constitution that would formally enshrine that rule and give more independent rule-making power to athletic conferences, among other reforms. By bending on college athletics’ foundational principle, they’ve opened the door to a simple—and for them, existentially terrifying—question: Why does the NCAA need to exist at all?

College sports predated it by several decades, but as college football in the pre–World War I era became ever more physically dangerous, the need for a national governing body was obvious. And over the following decades, the NCAA beefed up its capacity as an enforcer both on and off the field. But like Prohibition or sex work, the harsher the overall crackdown, the more the truly illicit activity tends to create its own under-the-table economic system.

The ever-present “bag-dropper” covertly paying off elite players and staff at major football and basketball programs has become a stock character in the cultural imagination of college sports followers. The NCAA has fought desperately to dispel that perception, which perhaps explains its Eliot Ness–like rigidity around minor, UMass-style offenders.

Now, the organization is allowing the bag-droppers in the front door, in the form of the money-men who pave the way for lucrative rights deals. So what role is left for them to play? “Well, you’ve already pretty much taken the enforcement aspect out of it,” says a man who would know: Dan Dakich, the 1980s-era Indiana University basketball star, coach, and sports-talk host who has lived almost his entire life around amateur athletics. Dakich has feuded loudly with advocates for student compensation like it’s his job, because it is: He hosts a combative talk program for 107.5 The Fan (owned by Emmis Communications, the company that owns Indianapolis Monthly).

Dakich’s role in the sports-media industrial complex is to play the out-of-touch oldster, opposed to the progressive consensus that student-athletes should be more fairly compensated. When I spoke with him shortly after he returned from touring the multimillion-dollar suites at the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, he mused about a scenario without the NCAA.

“If you were going to just make an entire separate Power Five tournament [an exclusive, non NCAA–sanctioned tournament featuring the biggest-money conferences in men’s college basketball], then why do you need scholarship limits? Why can’t they just do whatever the hell they want to do?”

The short answer is that, actually, they can. It’s not illegal for students to accept money for their athletic efforts, and it’s not illegal for universities, or anyone else, to compensate them. It is, however, forbidden by the NCAA, which can impose harsh sanctions up to and including the “death penalty” it imposed on Southern Methodist, which had its 1987 football season canceled for violations. That can mean missing out on revenue cornerstones like the signature men’s basketball tournament March Madness, from which hundreds of millions of dollars flow to NCAA member schools every year. Losing access to March Madness is one thing. But as Michael DeCourcy, who has reported on college athletics for the Sporting News for two decades, notes, there’s an even simpler function the NCAA serves that makes it unthinkable for even the most powerful schools to leave it behind: It’s helpful to have an institutional “bad cop” around, or at the very least, a scapegoat.

“They still stand as a liability shield for so much of college athletics, and I haven’t seen lawsuits slowing down,” DeCourcy says. “If you say, ‘We’re out of the NCAA,’ well, who do you think they’re suing? Now they’re suing you, man!”

But the universities that could plausibly spring free from the NCAA carry the kind of endowments that make them not exactly hard up for legal fees. And it doesn’t take an advanced degree to draw up a tournament bracket: If the NCAA disappeared tomorrow and its stately museum near the White River was converted into a Spirit Halloween, Alabama and Louisiana State University’s football teams would still play each other every fall, some enterprising Cinderella would still lace up with the hope of knocking off a top seed each March, and no, your son or daughter’s lacrosse or golf or field hockey team would not likely disband.

Critics see an unpredictable, seemingly arbitrary rule enforcement regime at the NCAA, aimed at propping up a fundamentally unfair status quo. To them—and the growing numbers that agree—that makes it almost a foregone conclusion that the structural backbone of college sports should be not just reformed, but replaced.

So why hasn’t it happened yet?

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Andy Schwartz”]”I know of no industry in which undercompensating the labor force results in an increase in demand.”[/pullquote]

THE CONCEPT of “amateurism” is deceptively complex. In the most basic sense, it’s defined as the undertaking of some action without financial compensation, as a hobby or a labor of love. In the world of college athletics, it has a longer and more tortured history, and that history starts with dozens of football players being maimed or killed.

The macho, outdoor- and sports-loving President Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” He believed in the explicitly spiritual, redemptive power of fresh air, fair competition, and the occasional broken bone or two.

But the leather-helmeted, bone-crunching, penicillin-free 1905 college football season—which saw a string of deaths and injuries that led The Chicago Tribune to call it a “death harvest”—was a bridge too far. Roosevelt summoned a clutch of Ivy League representatives to the White House to address the issue, and the meeting led to the formation of the NCAA’s predecessor, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Along with player safety, its purpose was to promote fair play and the concept of “amateurism,” which in the early 20th century meant not only the prohibition of player payment, but a vaguely defined moral and social uprightness, according to the Christian, nationalist social mores of the time.

Even as vast amounts of money have transformed college athletics from the largely club-based, local phenomenon they were until around the Vietnam era, that moralistic attitude toward student-athletes has persisted. But the NCAA has made one slow, begrudging concession after another to what Americans increasingly recognize as the bizarre theory at the heart of college sports: that their value is somehow determined by the fact that the athletes don’t get paid.

“I know of no industry in which undercompensating the labor force results in an increase in demand,” says Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist and co-sponsor of the California bill that allowed its athletes to take sponsorship deals. Schwarz has been a harsh, outspoken critic of the NCAA, penning numerous op-eds for the likes of Deadspin and Vice, and his economist’s point of view leaves little room for the Roosevelt-ian sentiment often deployed by defenders of the status quo.

“‘I think a certain group of people shouldn’t get paid.’ That’s a moral argument?” Schwarz asks. “So what is the benefit of amateurism? I think it’s a really weird place to start with an industry where the highest earners come from families that live below the poverty line.”

Schwarz’s critique raises one of the most overlooked realities of the endless debate about amateurism: For the vast majority of NCAA athletes, even a partial college scholarship is a net positive trade-off for the economic value they bring to a campus. It’s only in the two financial pillar sports that earn the zillion-dollar TV contracts and merchandising deals—football and men’s basketball—that the system’s insistence on its social and moral rewards stops being simply “inefficient,” in the economic sense of the term, and becomes glaringly unfair.

But as Schwarz and his fellow economists would surely note, there are always actors willing to step in and improve that market’s efficiency—that is, to direct money to where the actual value is created. And the nuclear-hot, zero-sum competition for top talent among the biggest programs isn’t just a modern phenomenon.

The NCAA said in an official statement that allowing students to profit from their name, image, and likeness rights without penalty was meant to “protect and enhance student-athlete well-being and maintain national standards for recruiting,” in a manner “consistent with the NCAA’s foundational prohibitions on pay-for-play and impermissible recruiting inducements, which remain essential to collegiate athletics.” In plain English: By allowing players to sign above-the-board recruiting deals, they might disincentivize the most egregious pay-offs and cheats in college athletics’ two most lucrative sports. (The NCAA responded to a request for comment with a link to its official statement and taped remarks from its president, Mark Emmert.)

That’s had the effect of bringing under the association’s umbrella the sordid-yet-well-known phenomenon of behind-the-scenes player payment.

“You ever see the movie Blue Chips?” says Dakich, referring to the 1994 drama about a men’s basketball coach who finds himself beset by shady agents and boosters directing unauthorized payments to players. “I’ve been around those guys for 100 years. I called them ‘penny billionaires’ at IU, and they don’t give a rat’s ass about the kids. They give a rat’s ass about saying what they’ve done for the kids. As a coach, you have to have those people around now because they’re going to provide the opportunities for the kids to make the NIL money.”

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young

But the vast majority of players’ names, images, and likenesses aren’t as valuable in a free market as, for example, Alabama’s quarterback Bryce Young, whose coach Nick Saban says has already reached nearly $1 million in sponsorship deals. And it doesn’t take an economist to predict that the most significant NIL deals are likely to go to players in the two sports that have always driven the bulk of revenue in college athletics, football and men’s basketball—the sports which critics have long attacked for not just their fundamental economic imbalance, but their unseemly racial politics, with a large number of their top players being Black and frequently from low-income families.

That makes the NIL policy change, consciously or not, a racially progressive one. It allows low-income minority students to profit from their irreplaceable talent before potentially losing it to either injury or the ruthless competition of professional sports. By sanctioning such payments, the NCAA finds itself in a vexing position: It provides a partial remedy for the most obviously unfair feature of college sports, but it implicitly admits how essentially unbalanced the entire enterprise is.

“Athletes are the most important part of generating sports,” Schwarz says. “Nobody pays to come watch a referee.”

With the awarding of NIL rights, the NCAA seems to have finally, begrudgingly acknowledged that. So if its most frequently derided function as a ruthless enforcer of amateurism has diminished in the face of reality, that puts the organization’s critics in the position of having to find another soft spot to attack. It also raises another, less frequently considered question: What if many of the very people those critics are out to defend are actually OK with the status quo?

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Kevin Blue”]”The financial structure, and the injection of revenue into that financial structure, have created a situation where the fairness for the student-athletes is out of balance.”[/pullquote]

THE INSTITUTE FOR Diversity and Ethics in Sport has been measuring graduation rates for bowl-bound football teams for nearly 20 years. Their work has consistently shown that, although a significant graduation gap persists between white players and Black players, athletes in both groups consistently graduate at rates much higher than their non-athletic peers. And beyond the academic benefits of the current system, many of them seem to like it.

In October, I spoke with Dee Montgomery, a guard for the University of Indianapolis Greyhounds men’s basketball team. Montgomery has taken a route through college athletics that’s been circuitous, to say the least. Starting his career at Arkansas State Mid-South, a junior college just down the road from his hometown of Horn Lake, Mississippi, he transferred to the Division I Purdue University Fort Wayne, and then to UIndy, a Division II program.

Montgomery has an unquenchable desire to play professional hoops. He talks about the game with the passion and insight of a true student, and wants to be around it in some form or fashion even when his playing days are over, preferably in a front office capacity. (He’s currently working on a master’s degree in sports management.) But neither his winding, unconventional background as a student, nor his big aspirations for the future, have given him what he says he was looking for at UIndy: a taste of the “traditional college experience.”

“A big part of my decision on going to school here was because I would have been the first one in my family to graduate with a four-year degree,” Montgomery says. “Being able to network with other people, just being able to get up and go on campus and see new faces every day is once-in-a-lifetime stuff.”

Kamrie Foster, a fellow UIndy student who has been on its softball roster for her entire time there—covering a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in progress—describes a similarly positive experience. One of the salutary effects of college sports’ financial bonanza, she says, is that the more money that’s in the system, the more that’s available for women’s programs, which schools are required per Title IX laws to equally support.

“I don’t necessarily have to think, Oh, I’m a woman, I have to worry about do I get this or do I get that,” Foster says. “We don’t have to fight for anything. And my head coach is a woman, our soccer head coach is a woman. It’s very encouraging to see you can go do bigger things.”

Montgomery and Foster are both mostly satisfied with their experiences as student-athletes, trading their skills for the scholarships that have led them to pursue advanced degrees. Despite being outside the college athletics world’s top 1 percent of big-sponsorship-earning names at large programs, neither are apparently eager to burn the whole system down, or even to tinker with it much. So what ideas exist for those who want to make college athletics more fair without fully professionalizing them, thereby turning them into even more of a big-money bacchanalia than they already are?

Kevin Blue was the athletic director at the University of California–Davis for five years, and a senior associate at Stanford before that. He knows the college athletics landscape well enough to know that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. But he still thinks the principle is worth preserving.

“The starting point is a recognition that the current system has within it incentives that make it impossible for it to operate any differently than it currently is,” Blue says. “What’s happening now, where you see eight-figure coaches’ salaries, the reason is not, ‘It’s a bunch of immoral, exploitative people who are just trying to enrich themselves and take advantage of student-athletes.’ This is what the system is set up to do. This is the natural consequence of a system in which there’s zero-sum competition.”

Translated for the non-economists: There aren’t enough uber-talented head coaches and athletes for every team who would like to recruit or employ them, therefore the teams that can afford to end up paying astronomical sums for top talent. Except you can’t legally pay players, so you end up massively overpaying brand-name head coaches with a proven track record of recruiting those players, unbalancing the entire system.

Blue wants to fix this. Or, at least, he did.

“I’ve studied this pretty extensively, and I made a career decision to leave based on what I figured out,” he says. The Toronto native now serves as an executive for Golf Canada, that nation’s governing body for the sport.

“The financial structure, and the injection of revenue into that financial structure, have created a situation where the fairness for the student-athletes is out of balance,” he says. “How you make rules to accommodate that is really difficult, when in fact, people all along should have just fixed the financial structure.”

Which leaves both the NCAA and its critics back where they all started: acknowledging that, as difficult as it might be to argue against some increased form of player payment, it’s just as difficult to imagine an alternative to the current system. Which is especially striking considering the prototype for one already exists: the College Football Playoff, launched in 2014 to crown a definitive yearly champion and organized totally outside the auspices of the NCAA.  But so far, its success hasn’t inspired the kind of structural jailbreak by big conferences that would further jeopardize the NCAA’s claim to power. “They’re keeping all of the money and they write their own rules now,” says DeCourcy, the Sporting News reporter, of the new playoff’s administration. “But the College Football Championship conferences keep membership in the NCAA so that they can participate in the other championships, whether it’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s soccer, wrestling, and, most importantly, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships.”

So as easy as it is to ask why no one has disrupted the system, it’s just as easy to ask why they would do it in the first place. It offends fundamental conceptions of fairness that a zillion-dollar industry doesn’t share its wealth with the players who generate it. It also doesn’t make much sense from a pure economic perspective. But if you think of the NCAA not as an out-of-touch cartel, but a very old, money-making institution that still does pretty well by the majority of its participants, it becomes a lot easier to understand its endurance.

“There are no ‘good old days’ in this,” DeCourcy says. “There’s only what’s best for student-athletes and what’s best for universities.”

The economic inequality at the heart of college sports means their ever-growing financial pie is mostly “best for universities.” But just as it’s a mistake to romanticize the past, as DeCourcy notes, it’s also wrong to catastrophize the present. Although a growing number of influential people believe this dynamic is unfair, it’s still very easy to find participants who are satisfied with it, and even critics like Schwarz haven’t stopped watching the games.

The NCAA might not have a crystal-clear, hyper-rational reason to exist in a vacuum, but nothing exists in a vacuum. The NCAA’s modern-day PR problem stems from its years of trying to do just that, as it stubbornly clung to the strict enforcement of an ideal that was out of date almost as soon as it was created more than 100 years ago. History—in the form of public opinion, the Supreme Court, and various state legislators—has finally jostled the NCAA from that position. Whether it can last another 100 years might ultimately depend on whether it can be more nimble than the less history-minded entrepreneurs and critics still desperate to replace it.