- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2013


In 13 words, the NCAA kicked over what remains of the rickety foundation supporting the continued existence of the multi-billion dollar cartel.

“The NCAA denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes,” the organization’s court filing two weeks ago said, “but admits that it was ‘founded to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time.’”

That’s right. In response to a wrongful death lawsuit by a college football player’s family, the organization established in 1906 after two White House conferences to combat football’s on-field carnage sees no duty to protect the athletes on whose backs the enterprise is constructed.

Cut through the high-minded bluster and slick commercials wheezed out by the NCAA’s propaganda machine and this is the hypocritical truth at the organization’s heart.

Those words on the NCAA’s own website near president Mark Emmert’s $1.7 million grin?

“Founded more than one hundred years ago as a way to protect student-athletes …”

The insistence of an NCAA spokesperson after a spate of embarrassing internal emails about the organization’s impotent concussion policy became public in July?

“Student-athlete safety is one of the NCAA’s foundational principles.”

That 30-seconds of self-congratulation disguised as a commercial the NCAA released last March?

“Just know,” the narrator said, “we’re always there for student-athletes.”

The black and white filing in Montgomery (Md.) County Circuit Court insists otherwise. Three times in the document the NCAA denied the duty to protect college athletes and, in the process, denied its reason to exist.

What is the point of the embattled organization if it refuses to assume its most fundamental duty?

The past year hasn’t been easy for the NCAA, after a string of self-inflicted crises: The botched investigation of the University of Miami. The dirty secret of selling memorabilia that identified college athletes on an NCAA-affiliated website. Ruling one college athlete ineligible for the crime of participating in a fun run. The unprecedented reduction of the unprecedented penalties on Penn State. The long-ignored academic scandal at the University of North Carolina. The release of over 1,000 pages of internal emails in which staffers treated concussions as fodder for jokes and, at times, concern over liability dwarfed safety.

“Are the refs more at risk if we don’t provide the educational piece on concussions or if we do provide it?” one NCAA official wrote in the emails. “And, what about the NCAA? Would we be protecting/helping the organization by not providing the information?”

Nothing in this year’s catalog of credulity-straining misadventures, however, is more odious than the 30-page document.

Someone died in an NCAA-sanctioned activity. And Emmert’s tone-deaf organization, never afraid to legislate the most minute details of college athletes’ lives, can’t flee accountability quickly enough.

Think about that. Derek Sheely died in August 2011 after suffering a brain injury during a football practice at Frostburg State University. No one investigated what happened. The NCAA only acknowledged the death four months after his mother, Kristen, wrote Emmert. That resulted in a four-paragraph letter from the NCAA’s director of health and safety that, among other things, suggested the grieving family visit the health and safety area of the NCAA’s web site.

The NCAA’s involvement with the death amounted to the cost of postage for a single letter.

The family sued.

How would you feel if the NCAA responded to your child’s death by swearing that protecting him or her was none of its business?

“The NCAA denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes.”

The NCAA chases illicit tattoos and hawked autographs and rented cars with the righteous zeal of Prohibition Era G-Men. They preach their ever-shifting definition of amateurism as some sort of noble ideal that, because someone plays college sports, they shouldn’t have opportunity to participate in the free market enjoyed by the rest of us, including the gang holed up in NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. They hold conferences in Ritz-Carltons. They blow enough hot air about reform to make one’s head spin. They keep the product in check with an onerous rule book that exceeds 400 pages, up from the six pages of the first manual in 1906. They shout from the rooftops that the idea of removing restrictions on compensation for college athletes would lead to a nuclear winter in college athletics.

In the court filing, the NCAA offers a hazy, confused explanation of the organization’s true purpose as “committed to providing opportunities for student-athletes” that deviates from breathless mentions of safety on the web site.

They want the power and the money generated by big-time college athletics, but none of the responsibility.

They wrap themselves in tax-exempt status under the guise of doing what’s best for college athletes, but don’t want to deal with the consequences of why they were actually founded.

All the while, the ruling class of college sports is enriched through the efforts of the fixed-wage labor force they now insist they have no legal duty to protect.

The life of those college athletes deemed unworthy of protection ended. And in that death, the one group the NCAA will protect at all costs emerged: Itself.

• Nathan Fenno can be reached at nfenno@washingtontimes.com.

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