- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The NCAA is patting itself on the back after passing a series of sweeping changes that will make cheating costlier for coaches and athletic programs. The threat of season-long suspensions, lengthier postseason bans and heftier fines is supposed to cleanse the underbelly of big-time college sports. 

But all this latest reform does is ignore the driving force behind the sordid issues — money. In the process, the NCAA has lost a longtime supporter of its quaint amateurism.

I give up. Count me among the growing chorus of voices who call for demolishing the current structure, not tweaking it.

“As hard as the NCAA tries to push holdouts like me into the ‘pay-for-play’ camp, I’m still not there,” read words in this space last year. ” I still disagree with the notion that student-athletes should be paid.

“Clarification: I continue to believe they’re paid enough, in the form of tuition, room, board, travel, training, gear and health care.”

That was before The Six Major Conferences continued to act like The Six Major Crime Families, engaging in another round of turf battles. That was before Alabama football coach Nick Saban received a raise and extension, taking his average salary to $5.6 million annually through 2019. And that was before Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch’s 14,000-word report in The Atlantic, detailing the NCAA’s despicable nature.

Considering the fact that big-time college sports is a multibillion-dollar venture, it’s time to kill the homespun belief in pure “student-athletes,” at least at the highest, most lucrative levels.

I understand the sentiment at small colleges in Division III and the NAIA, where athletic scholarships don’t exist. Those players, even in glamorous football and basketball, are student-athletes in the truest sense. The same pretty much applies to nonrevenue athletes in low-profile sports anywhere, whether Texas College (student body of 750) or the University of Texas.

But we’re deluding ourselves by sweeping them into the same pile with Kentucky basketball and Notre Dame football, athletes directly responsible for millions of dollars in revenue from tickets, concessions and apparel, not to mention the mother lode: broadcast rights.

There is no fair and equitable solution for compensating all college athletes, which is the main reason I’ve been a holdout for more than a decade. The NCAA administers 88 championships in 23 sports, with swimmers and runners working as hard as point guards and halfbacks. Likewise, end-of-the-roster reserves who never make it onto the court or field expend the same time and effort between games as star performers.

Besides, most schools aren’t making mounds of money from the revenue sports, which nonetheless support the entire athletic department. The problem I always had was deciding which athletes in which sports at which schools should get paid. With no easy answer, I always came back to “none,” concluding that they willingly engage in an extracurricular activity, whether it makes $1 or $10 million for the school.

Now, I concede that fairness for all is actually injustice for the money-makers. It punishes success and ignores merit. It abuses individual rights and makes a mockery of the market. It colonizes the main producers and enriches the NCAA cartel.

Allowing conferences to award $2,000 in scholarship funds for athletes’ expenses — a measure adopted this week — only highlights the gap between haves and have-nots. BCS conferences can pay that amount easily, while athletes can struggle to stretch the $38 per week.

The focus on chump change, seedy coaches and rogue programs isn’t fooling harsh critics on Capitol Hill, who are questioning the NCAA’s nonprofit status and antitrust exemption.

Inside Higher Ed reports that panelists during a roundtable discussion this week blistered the so-called reforms. “I have this innate understanding of the NCAA, and I think it is one of the most vicious, most ruthless organizations ever created,” said Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.). According to the report, Rush said the association “would make the mob look like choir girls and boys.”

It won’t be long before the enterprise as we know it crashes down. It will be dismantled from within, by member institutions who form their own group, or demolished from the bench, by judges’ verdicts in a slew of onerous lawsuits.

The games will go on, though, with most participants continuing to value their education and 99 percent going pro in other fields. The Olympics are still going strong, having overcome archaic, punitive and unrealistic ideals of amateurism in the 1980s. It’s time for college sports to follow suit.

The process can be figured out along the way.

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