Perched in the Indianapolis backstreets, far enough removed from the stalker-like microscope of today’s sports media, sits the offices of the highly-criticized yet highly-profitable National Collegiate Athletic Association. Amidst constant conference realignments and perpetual scandals on and off the playing field, the NCAA has, for now, found comfort in the change and crises that have seemingly become part of its fabric.
But the camel’s back cannot continue to sustain what is becoming an overly onerous load. Whether Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit, Arian Foster’s verbal wrath, Bob Knight’s confusion, Mark Cuban’s side project, or Sports Illustrated’s pejorative punch, the NCAA has come under increased scrutiny of late for a litany of partial policies and dastardly gaffes.
Notably, star Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was given a half-game suspension to begin this season for allegedly selling his own autograph. I still remember this well because ESPN force-fed it to us for so long it became what I call one of their foie gras stories (see also The Decision, Tebowmania, Bountygate and plenty more).
Dez Bryant had to sit out a full season for having dinner with Deion Sanders. Terrelle Pryor traded his jersey for tattoos and also paid far more dearly than Manziel. The late Rick Majerus was once suspended for buying one of his players a pizza. Was Manziel guilty? If so, to what extent? While the public followed along in the dark, the Manziel story ended, as so many NCAA stories seem to, with a mafia-like index finger to the lips.
The NCAA has more bylaws than seemingly any organization in America, yet apparently doesn’t have any for the arbitrary punishments they sporadically dole out. Countless programs have committed “major violations” in recent memory, yet the penalties they pay vary like the winter wind. After appropriately coming down hard on Penn State, the NCAA thought it wise, for the first time in their history, to reduce sanctions on the school that committed the most egregious and alarming violations in the history of college sports.
The Manziel controversy, among others, stirred up the debate on whether or not college athletes should be paid. Getting a full scholarship along with some other benefits to play sports isn’t a bad deal, but when the NCAA begins to profit directly from individual players I start to get a bad taste in my mouth. Not to generalize too much, but here’s another scenario where predominantly old fat-cat white guys from the south are profiting from the manual labor of predominantly African-American young men. Remind you of anything?
The NCAA is the epitome of a modern day monopoly. It has a stranglehold over not only a wildly lucrative industry, but also over its “employees” who see no fruits for their labor. It is the players, not the coaches and AD’s whose salaries have become as bloated as a lineman after Thanksgiving dinner, who are the essence of the NCAA product, and who are responsible for the ascension of the brand. There’s a reason the best coaches and GM’s in pro sports see salaries generally about one-tenth that of the best players.
So toss aside my ethical concerns; don’t for a second take this as an idealistic foot-stomping cry for justice. This is about business; there are thousands of athletes being dramatically undercompensated, and there is serious money to be made here. When power is too strictly contained among those who have done little or nothing to earn it, the seeds for a revolution are planted.
Moreover, the quality of the product itself is beginning to suffer. The NCAA is beginning to imitate society, as its elite programs continue to get stronger as the masses have begun to wither away. Even conference rivalries, or at least the ones that are left, are becoming increasingly lopsided. Rare is the Saturday where there are more than a small handful of competitive games.
As we get older, we learn that life is a series of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, highs and lows. History reinforces this important lesson; empires, no matter how mighty, are bound to eventually crumble. Supremacy, no matter how potent, is not eternal. Nothing is immune to demise.
With today’s record television contracts and merchandise sales, the NCAA is undoubtedly at its palatial and pompous peak; the sun does not seem intent on setting upon it in the imminent future. But if history has taught us anything, it is often at the summit where power is most susceptible to being snatched. A valley, though presently invisible to the naked eye, is likely to be lurking ahead.
Within the next decade or so, I believe the NCAA will resemble a forgotten fugitive on the run too long. After years of callous crimes committed without consequence, it will become inauspiciously unrecognizable, if it’s even still alive.