For decades upon decades now, even as public sentiment and evolved thinking have broken against it, the NCAA has tried to hold the hardest of lines.
It dragged its feet on things as reasonable as granting small stipends to student-athletes who need basic spending money and can’t get part-time jobs due to the demands of being a Division I athlete. Why? Because it could, until it finally couldn’t.
It refused to act on Name, Image and Likeness rules that prohibit players from making money from other people. Why? Because it could, until, starting July 1 in a handful of states, it won’t be able to any longer.
It has tried to pretend this was still 1974, even begging politicians and federal judges to save it.
The lack of leadership, the lack of compromise, the lack of foresight to do anything but keep kicking the can down the road has now left college athletics in a precarious spot where it no longer controls its future.
It’s a failure that falls on NCAA president Mark Emmert, sure, but also his predecessors, his bosses on the Board of Governors, even the massively paid conference commissioners who really pull the strings.
They all refused to do the work. Now they are staring at a potential mess.
Monday was a bad day for the NCAA status quo. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against it in the case NCAA v. Alston. That decision isn’t a major one, it simply prohibits the association from blocking schools from providing student-athletes with so-called “education-related expenses” — laptops, internships, academic awards and needed scientific equipment for example.
An NCAA logo is seen on the wall as players warm up prior to the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship on March 6, 2020. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
However, the ramifications of that ruling could prove significant. And it was easily avoidable. It was the NCAA that fought all the way to the Supreme Court. This was the hill it wanted to die on — denying a college athlete a laptop? This needed to be litigated?
Couldn’t the NCAA have worked with the players and their advocates and made a concession — free laptops, more internships — and declared it a victory for all sides while placating demand for more and more, rather than spend millions in a legal defense that just left it swinging like a piñata?
This was incredibly dumb.
By going to the Supreme Court, the NCAA risked not just losing the case, but the possibility of the court offering guidance that all but invites additional lawsuits that will have a far greater impact on how the money is distributed in college athletics — a development that may prove unintentionally disastrous for many student-athlete backers who are cheering this ruling.
And that’s precisely what happened.
“The bottom line is that the NCAA and its member colleges are suppressing the pay of student athletes who collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the 9-0 decision. “Those enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes. College presidents, athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners, and NCAA executives take in six- and seven-figure salaries. Colleges build lavish new facilities. But the student athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing …
“To be sure, the NCAA and its member colleges maintain important traditions that have become part of the fabric of America,” Kavanaugh continued. “… But those traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated.
“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”
Ouch. Just like that, by trying to fight the distribution of laptops, the NCAA could quickly be staring at unionized athletes, a pay-for-play model, lifetime healthcare due to injuries and who knows what else. These are the real things the NCAA wanted to avoid.
It’s why the risk of Kavanaugh, or any other justice, writing what he wrote should have caused the NCAA to ditch this legal strategy. Instead it pursued it with its same myopic arrogance.
It’s the same issue the NCAA has had with granting Name, Image and Likeness rights to its athletes. Rather than write the rules itself, it stalled until state legislatures did the work. The concept is so popular with legislators that states as politically disparate as California and Alabama have overwhelmingly embraced new laws that side against the NCAA wishes.
Even then the NCAA tried to get the United States Senate to enact a single standard only to run into the expected grandstanding on all sides of the political spectrum.
No business wants its rules and operating procedures to be determined by judges and politicians. No smart business that is. Yet here we are, paralysis of the NCAA leaving it in the lurch.
The Alston ruling changes little. The next one might. And the one after that and that. And while it’s easy to side with the athletes against the big, bad, faceless bureaucracy of the NCAA, well, this isn’t as easy as it looks.
If college sports winds up having to pay all of its college athletes some kind of salary — even minimum wage for 20-30 hours a week of “work” — in addition to scholarships, training, support staff and, yes, free laptops, the economic model isn’t sustainable. It just isn’t.
Yes, college athletics — namely college football — brings in billions in revenue but that is still a finite number. The biggest athletic departments use the money from one sport (or maybe two) to fund up to 36 different teams.
Some of those programs could get cut. A lot of them probably. Once this becomes just business, don’t be surprised if the parts of the business that are almost complete revenue drains get trimmed.
Arguments that football budgets need to be reduced may be cheered by some, but starving the profit center of a business is never a good idea. It also just isn’t going to happen.
In the end, by never working to address inevitable changes while it still had control, and never finding modest and agreeable reforms to maintain the very many positive benefits of college athletics, the NCAA has left the entire model in the crosshairs.
And no one is sure where the next bullet is coming from.
When your strategy is to dare the Supreme Court to call out your tortured arguments, however, it shouldn’t be shocking when they do.
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