- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2015


Amateur competition is a bedrock principle of college athletics and the NCAA. Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority. In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.

I left off the quotation marks in an attempt to keep a straight face while telling a whopper. Consider it deadpan in print. But the above comes word-for-word from the NCAA website.

That must be the idyllic concept that President Barack Obama referenced during a weekend interview with The Huffington Post. Like many opponents, he argues that players can’t receive anything in addition to scholarships because they’re amateurs.

“In terms of compensation, I think the challenge would just then start being, do we really want to just create a situation where there are bidding wars?” Obama asked. “How much does an Anthony Davis get paid as opposed to somebody else? And that I do think would ruin the sense of college sports.”

I’m not sure if his bracket is busted, but his reasoning is cracked. Such illogic is the most annoying aspect of March Madness.

The quaint notions of amateur athletes who are students first might apply at the 450 schools in Division III or the 300 schools in Division II. But those schools have no role in the NCAA’s $11 billion contract with CBS and Turner Sports.

“This is an important day for intercollegiate athletics and the 400,000 student athletes who compete in NCAA sports,” then-interim NCAA president Jim Isch said in April 2010 when the deal was announced. “This agreement will provide on average more than $740 million annually to our conference and member schools to help student-athletes in 23 sports learn and compete.”

Put another way, about 399,200 student-athletes are benefiting from the 800 men’s basketball players who participate in the NCAA tournament each year. Based on Isch’s statement, those players generate on average about $925,000 to the cause each year.

Yet, the NCAA would have us believe that — aside from talent level — these players are no different than their intramural counterparts on campus.

The fallacy becomes more dubious every March, with games tipping off close to 10 p.m. or later, causing late nights and early wake-up calls.

“It just tickles me to death that we’re doing this for the student-athletes,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told reporters Saturday afternoon. “It’s all for the betterment of the student-athlete.”

His sarcasm was evident. If the NCAA was truly interested in the betterment of student-athletes, it would ease up on the antiquated, draconian definition of “amateurism.” The current standards might have been appropriate in 1950, when CCNY became the only team to win the NCAA and NIT in the same season.

But today, the rules are as outdated and unsightly as short shorts. The restrictions also are terribly unjust when you consider the amount of money changing hands. Not even Obama’s “sense of college sports” can make sense of that.

“What does frustrate me is where I see coaches getting paid millions of dollars, athletic directors getting paid millions of dollars, the NCAA making huge amounts of money, and then some kid gets a tattoo or gets a free use of a car and suddenly they’re banished,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

The organization responds with gags presented as reality. Here’s another laugher from its website: “The NCAA membership has adopted amateurism rules to ensure the students’ priority remains on obtaining a quality educational experience and that all of student-athletes are competing equitably.”

Equality is nonexistent among the 350 Division I schools, let alone the 11,000 total. The top level consists of “Haves” (Power Five), “Have Somes” (high mid-majors) and “Have Littles” (one-bid mid-majors). And each school constantly tries to move ahead in its respective pack — or at least keep pace.

They already engage in the bidding wars Obama fears, except the currency involves facilities, playing time and academic “support.” That falls far short of $11 billion, but it’s a start.

Going a bit further wouldn’t be difficult.

The NCAA brags that 96 percent of the TV loot is “used to benefit student-athletes,” so it should foot the bill for universal stipends based on division. Such a move would allow the Gonzagas and Wichita States to remain level with the UCLAs and Notre Dames. It also would allow the Georgia States and Northern Iowas to compete without bankrupting their athletic departments’ budgets and it would give athletes in Divisions II and III some pocket money for their time and effort on behalf of their schools.

Moreover, the NCAA should allow players to benefit from their likeness. If a memorabilia dealer wants to pay Jahlil Okafor for autographed jerseys or an auto dealer wants to use the Harrison twins in a TV commercial, those side deals shouldn’t affect the players’ eligibility.

Profiting off your celebrity is the American way. Besides, it would make March Madness feel less slimy.

“Membership established the [amateurism] process to bring about national uniformity and fairness,” reads the NCAA website.

Very funny. But the NCAA can keep elements of both — and step into the 21st century — with a couple of simple changes.

Enough with the jokes.

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