“Change happens; if you fight change, you’re going to lose.”
ESPN’s Senior Vice President for College Sports Programming, Burke Magnus, explained last year to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples how this change has driven conference realignment and lucrative television contracts in college athletics.
However, this change is not simply a result of new technology, more money or better college athletes but a result of media and conference executives’ greed, and the unrealistic expectations of fans. And now, these expectations and greed could lead to the collapse of the NCAA.
An antitrust lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and other former athletes, resurfaced last week when Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany filed a court declaration stating that if the plaintiffs won, the Big Ten would drop to Division III. Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, and a victory by the plaintiffs would likely force the NCAA, member conferences and institutions to pay millions of dollars in damages.
University of Texas Men’s Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch and other university officials across the nation also filed declarations explaining how a class-action win for the plaintiffs would adversely impact athletic programs, forcing these institutions to drop out of Division I or to cut sports.
The O’Bannon case has major legal and monetary implications, and as The New York Times’ Katie Thomas reported in 2010, “The case is drawing attention because it gets to the heart of a highly contest legal question: when should a person’s right to control his image trump the free-speech rights of others to use it?”
Meanwhile, the future of the NCAA and college athletics hangs in the balance.
The NCAA was founded upon the principle of amateurism, but with caveats. Injuries, corruption and one-upmanship dominated collegiate athletics for some time, and the NCAA, founded in 1906, had little actual power until the 1950s. Players received benefits, coaches recruited as they pleased and school administrators let it all happen.
But in 1951 that all changed, when the NCAA’s new Executive Director, Walter Byers, persuaded the University of Kentucky to suspend its basketball team for the 1952-1953 season, even after it won the National Championship the previous year with legendary Head Coach Adolph Rupp.
Byers’ action became monumental, as the NCAA gained legitimacy and power overnight, soon controlling television rights for football and basketball games. The Supreme Court later ruled the organization’s control of football revenue was unconstitutional after the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma realized they could make more money by working directly with television networks.
Civil-rights historian Taylor Branch documented this history and how the NCAA evolved since the 1950s in an October 2011 article in The Atlantic, appropriately titled “The Shame of College Sports.”
The NCAA is a hoax.
Everything from its arcane rules to its usage of the term “student-athlete” is completely baseless. Byers even noted in his memoir how the NCAA invented the term student-athlete to avoid legal issues, and Branch detailed in his 2011 article how this language protected the NCAA, rather than member institutions or the athletes it claimed to serve.
Meanwhile, universities continued to blur the line between their non-profit academic mission and the profit-driven model of professional sports. SI’s Staples reported as much last August, detailing how conference commissioners, university presidents and television executives exploited fan expectations to create some of the most lucrative contracts in television history. A single game today is worth almost as much as the entire 1984 football season, according to Staples.
Universities have pushed the envelope since the advent of college sports, and that trend only accelerated following apparel contracts in the 1970s and the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1984.
Now content control is everything. Conferences no longer need to even partner with networks, as the Big Ten did with Fox. The Pac-12 recreated that model with the Pac-12 Networks, the latest revolution in big-time college athletics.
Headed by Commissioner Larry Scott, the Pac-12 controls all the content while assuming all the risk, with the potential for record profits. Meanwhile, ESPN’s profit margin has decreased over the past few years as the network has tried to expand content rights to guarantee a share of future conference networks.
Conferences are now based on television markets.
The Big Ten poached the University of Maryland and Rutgers University to capture the nation’s fourth largest media market; the Southeastern Conference stole the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University to pick up statewide media markets, even as it ignored Clemson and Florida State University right in its own backyard.
Purity no longer exists in college athletics, but perhaps it never did. The NCAA investigates “student-athletes” for minor infractions while letting university administrators off the hook, so institutions will not abandon the organization.
There may never be a level playing field in college athletics, but it is due to university presidents, not the NCAA. Universities have always competed with one another off the field, and the NCAA’s inability to control this has led to the downward spiral in college athletics.
The NCAA is bad; university presidents are worse.
The O’Bannon lawsuit could force institutions to begin paying student athletes. But pay-for-play is not the answer. Rather, universities must deemphasize athletics, like the University of Kentucky did in 1952. Only then will college athletics begin to align with the non-profit mission of higher education.
The question is whether university presidents will do what the NCAA has failed to do for more than 100 years: work for student-athletes.