Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 29, 2013

Is the NCAA a sinking ship?

by Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— Can things get much worse for the embattled NCAA?

The enforcement division looks like a toothless tiger. Players are demanding to be paid. An antitrust lawsuit brought by former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon threatens the association’s long-standing claim of amateurism protection. College presidents are calling for “transformative change” in how the NCAA operates, a feat it wants accomplished by next summer. And, oh yes, the five major football conferences are looking at pulling out and operating their sport and national playoffs under a new umbrella.

By comparison, the NCAA’s myriad problems make the Obama Administration’s roll out of the Affordable Care Act look smooth.

The daily flow of bad news chronicling the NCAA seems to fall somewhere between damaging and defeated. NCAA President Mark Emmert looks as unsteady as a boxer stunned by a left hook.

Sweep away the grandeur of attending a big-time college football game on a glorious autumn afternoon and what is hidden from the public’s view is too few men fighting over too much money.  In a relatively short time span, major college sports have become a big, big business where winning drives the bottom line.

In a strange announcement, Emmert recently suggested that maybe the time has come for the best athletes to consider skipping college and going straight to the pros – a case in team sports that’s only permissible in baseball, where kids fresh out of high school can head to the lowest levels of the minor leagues and begin working their way up. College basketball’s best players generally spend at least a year on campus before accepting the NBA’s riches. NFL rules require players to wait three years after graduation from high school to enter the draft.

That idea won the endorsement of other conference leaders. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany questioned why colleges should be the minor leagues for professional sports. It is easy to understand the frustration coaches and athletic directors must feel in seeing their star players leave early, but what’s to be gained by having the best players bypass college athletics altogether?

Who thinks Alabama’s Nick Saban or Kentucky’s John Calipari would endorse a deal like that?

The pros, other than baseball, aren’t going to invest in an expanded minor league system. Therefore, the colleges must be hoping that the professional leagues and their player associations further limit when an athlete can trade in his student-athlete status for a pro contract. So far there’s been no inclination that will happen, and if it ever should, you can bet with total assurance an athlete would challenge that move in court in a nanosecond.

At the same time, university power brokers are drawing a hard line on compensating players. Those top athletes, who see college as a place to hone their skills, can forget about getting paid. When it comes to money, there’s little love for the ones scoring the touchdowns or grabbing the rebounds.

Once again it was the Big Ten’s Delany, whose conference counts $310 million a year in revenue, according to Forbes, leading the charge. “If they’re not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one squashing that pay-for-play notion. According to an article in ESPN written by Howard Bryant, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said paying athletes was “the most idiotic suggestion of all time.” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, also an opponent of paying players, said it was time for colleges to “redefine amateurism.”

Perhaps it’s time that colleges also took a look at their mission statement and “redefine” the role college athletics should play in higher education and campus life in general.

The NCAA and college presidents are dancing close to the line where they appear to be painting athletes as the villains in this whole sordid mess.

Maybe the NCAA can find a way around the worrisome lawsuits it’s facing and maybe Emmert and his staff can make the NCAA a more workable and responsive organization. But maybe not.

It’s possible that the problem of providing oversight of a fragmented multi-billion dollar business is too huge for the NCAA to fix. It has the responsibility, but sadly not the authority, to bring direction to a system that seems adrift.

Emmert should just focus on keeping the NCAA ship from sinking.

Anyone have a life preserver?

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.