You’d be hard-pressed to find an organization as inept at doing its job as the NCAA. Since the dawn of athletic scholarships in 1950, major athletic programs have attempted to lure gifted 18 year olds to their campuses by means that can be described as morally flexible at best, and appallingly sleazy at worst.
We’re talking houses, cars, cash worth hundreds of thousands of dollars funnelled under the table to recruits. We’re talking players salvaging their academic eligibility by taking summer course loads including, and limited to, music, golf and “AIDS Awareness.” Former coaches like Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze were likely singlehandedly keeping the lights on at local brothels by repeatedly hiring prostitutes for recruits.
The presence of “bagmen,” boosters of a school who clandestinely award impermissible benefits to recruits, has been well documented for years. It’s no secret that the upper level of collegiate athletics has been rife with corruption for a long time. Perfectly clean programs are the exception, not the rule.
What’s stunning is that despite the plain-faced cheating that runs rampant from Gainesville to Eugene, the NCAA is entirely incapable of enforcing its own rules. The repeated failure of the NCAA to fulfill its core values means that it’s time for the cleverly disguised cartel that governs intercollegiate athletics to disband.
The punishments levied by the NCAA have categorically failed to deter future bad behavior. Nevin Shapiro, a booster at the University of Miami, used funds obtained in a ponzi scheme to provide yacht trips, cash, prostitutes and more to 72 Miami Hurricane football players. The only significant consequence of this, the most egregious booster scandal of all time, was a two-year self-imposed bowl ban.
The ’Canes’ cross-state rival in Tallahassee had a massive academic scandal of their own in 2007, in which 23 football players and 61 athletes were implicated. As an institution that claims to value the concept of scholarship, the response to this wanton cheating should have rendered the Florida State ship rudderless. The slight reduction in scholarships, vacating of twelve wins and four-year probation were not enough to even make a dent; the Florida State Seminoles won a national championship in football in 2013 and compiled a record of 78-17 from 2010-2016, fourth best in the country over that timespan.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been embroiled in an academic scandal so severe that its accreditation was in jeopardy. Baylor University’s former football coach Art Briles systematically allowed 31 of his players to allegedly rape over four dozen women with impunity. No punishment has been handed down in either of these cases yet. How can a blue blood program look at how its contemporaries have fared post-scandal and see any downside to skirting the rules?
The fact that it took an FBI investigation to take action on the ubiquitous corruption occurring in college basketball is a damning testament to the NCAA’s ineptitude. Why is it that the NCAA, whose chief stated purpose is to guarantee that everyone is following the rules, can’t do that at all? It took a federal warrant to expose the nefarious activities that all except the willfully blind knew were transpiring. At this point, it’s fair to question if the NCAA is complicit in its own member schools’ coverups.
The clear focus of the NCAA is, despite its status as a non-profit, to make money. It does so when major programs like USC, Florida State and North Carolina are at the forefront of the landscape of revenue-generating sports. There is no incentive on the part of the NCAA to regulate its members’ behavior as long as the gravy train keeps rolling; the sports association generated nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2016.
It is this emphasis on creating a high quality athletic product that makes the NCAA a confusing fit to govern Division II and Division III athletics. Why does it make any sense for the same governing body to regulate both Macalester and the University of Minnesota? The athletic departments at the respective schools are as fundamentally different from each other as possible by any metric conceivable.
Besides making money, nothing gets NCAA officials as jazzed as ensuring that the student-athletes off of whom they profit reap no monetary benefit from their athletic involvement. No impermissible benefit is too trivial. The rulebook covers them all: no fantasy football, no borrowing shaving cream on a recruiting visit, no university-provided cookie cakes with icing. The thrill of exploitation is what keeps the NCAA going. God knows where they’d find the energy to operate if student-athletes were paid.
This isn’t even broaching the subject of whether athletes should be compensated beyond their scholarships. It’s just about having a brain. It’s completely harmless for athletes to get free tattoos. It’s not as harmless to have 65-year-old men brazenly touting the sexual prowess of escorts to teenage boys to get them to play for their school.
The same rules shouldn’t apply to a Golden Gopher football player as a Scot tennis player. For one, millions of dollars hang in the balance of their performance on a year-to-year basis. For the other, not so much, unless there’s a seedy underbelly of the Mac-Groveland neighborhood where bookies have gambling lines on D-III tennis matches. Yet both have the same inane rules applied to them.
The scale of the different divisions makes regulating them in identical fashion clumsy and ridiculous. Especially for a governing body that has shown no indication of being able to appropriately handle any of the divisions, there’s no reason they should be in charge of nearly 1,300 schools and conferences.
The sensible solution is for schools to divide themselves into smaller subsets that are organized intuitively. Members of the Power Five: ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC (and likely the Big East for basketball) should have their own set of rules. The next five biggest conferences, commonly referred to as Group of Five: AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt should have another separate organization. Serious regard for the size of institutions will produce more coherent and logical rulebooks.
The NCAA problem is getting worse, not better. There has been no evidence that they have any regard for students’ best interests at any point. That’s not going to change now. Big-time athletic departments don’t need the NCAA to achieve popularity. The structure of the fledgling College Football Playoff is an indication that they’re starting to realize that. D-I sports would be more ethical without the NCAA. D-II and D-III athletics would likely benefit from its demise. It’s time to end this failed experiment.