The Future of College Sports – – Part II

Once athletic scholarships became acceptable in intercollegiate athletics, it took no time for bigger schools and schools with richer endowments and patrons to take advantage of smaller less wealthy schools.  The idea of “creating a level playing field” for all colleges would certainly have won a plebiscite and eventually a concoction that came to be known as the NCAA – – the National Collegiate Athletic Association – – arrived on the scene.  This Association would make rules that would – – in theory – – give every school the same chance at “athletic glory”.  Here are some of the mechanisms the NCAA used:

  1. Scholarship limitations in all sports:  A rich school could not offer unlimited football scholarships thereby keeping quality players away from opponents.
  2. Eligibility rules.  Players need to be enrolled at the schools they represent AND they must be pursuing a degree from that school sufficient to meet academic progress standards along the way.
  3. Recruiting restrictions I:  Wooing young athletes to come to various colleges can only happen at certain times of the year and the number of contacts made by the schools was limited.
  4. Recruiting restrictions II:  Only certain “amenities” can be afforded to students during and as part of the recruiting processes.
  5. On-campus rules:  Other than team membership and training access, players on athletic scholarships could receive no benefits or access that was not available to every other student on campus.

The first four of those categories of rules produced the infamous NCAA rulebook that stretched to hundreds of pages and at one time actually set forth the foods that could and could not be offered to recruits on a campus visit.  At one time the rules forbade offering recruits cream cheese for the bagels they were served legally; given that level of meaningless detail, it is not surprising that the NCAA rulebook was as long as it was.

However, it was that fifth category that caused the most grief.  Your average student strolling around your average college campus is not the recipient of any cash-money payments from the school for attending that school.  If athletes cannot receive any benefits unavailable to any ordinary student … well, you see the problem here.

After lots of acrimony and confrontation, the Supreme Court ultimately said that athletes can receive benefits – – to include cash-money – – for the licensing of their name image and likeness (NIL).  And just like water spilling over an earthworks dam, once that flow starts the dam is no longer viable.  The NCAA as an institution derived whatever revenues it did as a result of the popularity of the “major schools” under the NCAA umbrella; ergo, the NCAA did its best to avoid severe punishments for those “major schools”.  Enlightened self-interest is the strongest human motivational force.

Now the NCAA seeks to settle a lawsuit that charges the institution with violating the anti-trust laws.  When these laws were being formulated and modified and interpreted more than a hundred years ago, the legislators had no intention of sweeping a future college athletics organization under those laws’ jurisdiction.  And yet, here we are.  The NCAA meets the definitions of impropriety under those laws and the only conclusion is that it did it to itself.  The most generous interpretation I can give to the situation is that the “major schools” finally decided that they have had enough of the nit-picking by the NCAA, and they abandoned the institution and left it to fend for itself.

So, member schools are about to get millions of dollars from the NCAA coffers as a settlement distribution.  Where does that leave us?

  • “Minor schools” will get a one-time windfall of money.  How they use that money – – in theory – – is up to them.
  • “Minor schools” will continue to get smaller revenues from their media rights contracts because those instruments depend solely on public attractiveness of their games.  Here is a fact:
  • More people will watch SEC football games than MAC football games.  More viewers equal more media rights revenue.
  • Minor sports will bring in far less revenue than football or basketball.  Will they survive?

So, will the “minor schools” now have a level playing field with the “big guys”?  Of course not.  The NCAA never achieved that idyllic state; the absence of the NCAA will not bring it to pass.  The schools whose athletic entities are desired brands will dominate the schools who are only known as entries in the agate type list of scores in the morning newspaper.  If that sounds harsh, consider these words from author Christian Bovee:

“Life being full of harsh realities, we seek relief from them in a variety of pleasing delusions.”

So, what might happen once the fate of collegiate athletics is turned over to the marketplace?

  • If schools and/or conferences are free to pursue athletic glory and championships simultaneously with the pursuit of greater revenue and profit, why are athletic departments tied to schools other than using the school’s name as an identifier?  Maybe Athletic Departments can spin-off from schools, pay the schools a licensing fee to use the school’s name and then the Athletic Department can “go it alone”.
  • If anything like that happens, what is to prevent “venture capital” from entering the scene and “investing” in the athletic fortunes of Disco Tech?
  • If the NCAA rulebook becomes nothing more than an amusing relic of a bygone era, what is the meaning of “eligibility”?
  • Will future participants in college athletic events need to be enrolled at the school they represent?  Why?
  • Can college athletes participate in their sport at this level for more than four years?  Why not?
  • Even if enrollment is required somehow, why would an athlete have to attend even a single class should he/she not want to do so?  If they are being paid to play a game, why are they also required to care about learning even the first thing about anthropology?

Enough for today; I will – – hopefully – – conclude this extended ranting tomorrow.  In the meantime, let me close with these words from President Theodore Roosevelt about the value of a college education:

“A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



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