BY Art Thiel 02:01PM 08/24/2011

Thiel: Reform? Only if NCAA goes pro

Please, Mark Emmert, no more baby steps to reforming the NCAA. Let the big schools go pro and end the hypocrisy.

UW coach Steve Sarkisian doesn't think the level of college football corruption has gone up. But the stakes and exposure certainly have. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest file

ESPN went to considerable trouble on TV last week to express its concern for the state of college football, which, if you haven’t noticed, is pretending to believe it needs to be reformed.

Of course,  it does. But the sincerity of the effort calls to mind the effort to reform the impact of lobbying on Congress. Everyone knows something needs to happen — as long it doesn’t take a single dime from the system’s beneficiaries.

Meaningful reform will happen in big-time college sports only when everyone involved – coaches, athletic directors,  conferences, BCS, networks, advertisers (but not the athletes themselves, because they have no standing in the argument) – agree to take considerably less money than they do now.

Until then,  presidents can increase all the APRs a GPAs that their pointy heads desire, as well as slash the rule book down the best-of-seven commandments, and it won’t make  difference.

Only one thing will make a difference – going pro, officially.

Just as the Olympics have done, as well as the industries of baseball, hockey, soccer and to a small extent, basketball (with the creation of the National Basketball Developmental League). These major team sports subsidize their talent feeder systems.

Pro football has a free feeder system – college football. If the NFL had to subsidize, organize and regulate its feeder system, chances are you would never have heard of Nevin Shapiro, except as a con man doing 20 years for ripping off hundreds of people in a $950 million Ponzi scheme.

But because there was no one at the University of Miami who was interested in, or capable of, stopping this rogue jocksniffer from throwing cash, cars, boats, women and bling allegedly at 72 Hurricanes players and seven coaches,  the NCAA is awash in even more than the usual amount of embarrassment, hypocrisy and criticism.

From prison, Shapiro pulled the pants down on the industry through a tell-all written by Yahoo! Sports that was researched over 11 months and revealed misdeeds documented from 2002 to 2010.

The NCAA says it has been investigating for five months. The school announced this week that 15 current athletes are being investigated for having received improper benefits from Shapiro that would make them ineligible to play this fall.

Largely missing from the discussion about the Miami fallout, as well the rules scandals that have consumed Ohio State, North Carolina and other big-time programs this year, are two important points: Athlete amateurism at this level of revenue no longer exists anywhere else in the sports world, and even if the NCAA recognized that truth, it is not set up to do anything about it.

Although a large contributor to college sports rules mayhem through its huge rights-fee contracts with the conferences and bowls, ESPN attempted to take a high road with a series called, “College Football: Blueprint for Change.” But the panel chosen to discuss reform were almost exclusively the well-paid coaches, administrators and broadcasters heavily invested in the status quo. They went over the much-plowed ground of pay-for-play, bloated rule book and insufficient penalties to come the same maybe-this, maybe-that conclusions that always end reform dialogue with a collective shrug.

One worthwhile statement was made by former Big East Conference commissioner Mike Tranghese. It wasn’t a scoop, but it was refreshing to hear a longtime insider call out bovine compost.

“We (big-time college sports) really have no one in charge, by the way,” he said. “Anybody who thinks the NCAA is in charge has got their head in the sand.”

Boom. Target hit.

The NCAA is a semi-voluntary association of  sports-playing schools that is at its  bureaucratic best in holding meetings and organizing national post-season tournaments. It is at its worst enforcing a set of values that bear no relationship to the modern sports world of of professionalism, capitalism and commerce.

To follow the rules, the NCAA requires a degree of self-policing in a commercial activity that plays a huge role in creating a school’s national profile as well as sustaining each school’s athletic department of 20-plus non-revenue sports.  The pressure for football teams to succeed is enormous, therefore so is the pressure to cheat, or to at least ignore what can’t be controlled. The Nevin Shapiros of the college sports world exist because of the rules, not despite them.

As the new president of the NCAA, former University of Washington president Mark Emmert is acutely aware of the financial pressure burdening many of his former college colleagues.  The recent cascade of wealth pouring into the big conferences for TV rights virtually assures that the athletic departments will need no help from a school’s general fund that, in public schools, is sustained in part by state tax money that is drying up rapidly in the returning recession.

Despite some small progress at a recent retreat that included more than 50 university presidents, there’s no way Emmert will ask school leaders to sacrifice revenues to pay players more than an incremental stipend. No way will the infractions committee order the “death penalty” for Miami, because the loss of that high-profile program from the TV schedule will hurt revenues throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference, the non-conference opponents and the BCS.

The NCAA has no subpeona power, and no recourse for violations of criminal or civil law by players and coaches. It has no answer for street agents, high school cheats or the whims of the BCS, which is independent of the NCAA.

Emmert said after the retreat with that he was determined to make “violating the rules cost more than not violating them.”  Good idea, except that he will have to increase his enforcement division to something on the order of the North Korean army.

And as always, genuine reform in the NCAA will be thwarted by its competing self-interests. It cannot reform by increments.

The likeliest solution, which is already on the drawing board in some form, is for the top 64 schools to break away from the NCAA and form their own professional association of four super-conferences, with limited connections to the universities and the old rulebook.

To take it a step beyond, the conferences should rent facilities from universities for the same amount they now provide to subsidize the non-revenue sports.

The new association would create professional sports academies that give professional scholarships based on need, and create sports training schedules around life-skills classes, in the way of European sports academies. Athletes organized and disciplined enough to pursue a serious course of study could be accommodated. The education becomes the player’s choice, not one forced upon him to maintain eligibility for something that has nothing to do with education.

That is a radical departure, but anything less won’t get it done, because attitudes and behaviors are too entrenched. Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, in a New York Times story, typified the in-house belief that things today really aren’t much worse than they used to  be.

“I don’t think the corruption in all honesty has changed a whole lot,” he said. “I don’t think if a kid got paid last year that it’s the first time in college football history that a kid got paid. It’s the reality of it.”

True, but that’s a little naive, Steve.  Since there’s no doubt the stakes and the media exposure have increased exponentially, it’s hard to believe the cheating hasn’t increased in step, because cheating remains worth the small chance of being caught. Even his former school boss, Emmert, understands the rewards incent cheating.

End the hypiocrisy. End the sham. Just go pro.

Who knows? The NFL owners just got themselves a fine collective bargaining agreement and 10 years of labor peace. Maybe they can afford to buy themselves a 64-team minor league.


YourThoughts

  • Pingback: University Diaries » Honoring an inveterate cheater.

  • Sam Kelly

    “From prison, Shapiro pulled the pants down on the industry” LOL Art! Im too dumb to comment on this issue other than that. I just want to see football haha!

  • Sam Kelly

    “From prison, Shapiro pulled the pants down on the industry” LOL Art! Im too dumb to comment on this issue other than that. I just want to see football haha!

  • Steve59

    Great column.  You are right-on.  And, nothing will happen.

  • Steve59

    Great column.  You are right-on.  And, nothing will happen.

  • spudzDP

    Mark Emmert reminds me of Gorbachev who, after becoming the leader of the Soviet Union, helped to bring it all crumbling down, basically ending Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. I doubt that Gorby had that intention when he came to power, but he facilitated it with his personality, his relative youth and his new school attitude.  Communism was already falling apart, but it needed someone like Gorbachev to help kick it down the stairs.  Emmert might be in that same position as far as the NCAA goes.
    He is younger than most of the senior citizens who ran the NCAA before, so he is probably more open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things.  This could open the door to paying athletes — not like professional football players, but on a scale perceived to insure college players won’t be as tempted to accept illegal payments.  This will be the beginning of the end of the NCAA.  It will come crashing down faster than any bust of Lenin ever did.  Once the cash begins trickling down, every thing will change. The athletes might benefit, but the entire landscape will go through a radical makeover.  The loss of the NCAA is no great tragedy, but Saturdays will never be the same.  

  • spudzDP

    Mark Emmert reminds me of Gorbachev who, after becoming the leader of the Soviet Union, helped to bring it all crumbling down, basically ending Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. I doubt that Gorby had that intention when he came to power, but he facilitated it with his personality, his relative youth and his new school attitude.  Communism was already falling apart, but it needed someone like Gorbachev to help kick it down the stairs.  Emmert might be in that same position as far as the NCAA goes.
    He is younger than most of the senior citizens who ran the NCAA before, so he is probably more open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things.  This could open the door to paying athletes — not like professional football players, but on a scale perceived to insure college players won’t be as tempted to accept illegal payments.  This will be the beginning of the end of the NCAA.  It will come crashing down faster than any bust of Lenin ever did.  Once the cash begins trickling down, every thing will change. The athletes might benefit, but the entire landscape will go through a radical makeover.  The loss of the NCAA is no great tragedy, but Saturdays will never be the same.  

  • Anonymous Coward

    OK, pay the athletes to make up the difference between expenses covered by a scholarship and actual costs.  But can you pay them enough so the kid won’t still be tempted by a big-money sleaze ball agent who can put the kid’s family in a nice house rent free or set up anything goes weekends at a resort?  The problem is still there whether you pay them or not.  Effective enforcement and penalties will still be needed.

  • Anonymous Coward

    OK, pay the athletes to make up the difference between expenses covered by a scholarship and actual costs.  But can you pay them enough so the kid won’t still be tempted by a big-money sleaze ball agent who can put the kid’s family in a nice house rent free or set up anything goes weekends at a resort?  The problem is still there whether you pay them or not.  Effective enforcement and penalties will still be needed.

  • Rusty Shackleford

    “The likeliest solution, which is already on the drawing board in some
    form, is for the top 64 schools to break away from the NCAA and form
    their own professional association of four super-conferences, with
    limited connections to the universities and the old rulebook.”

    They can call it the Premier League.

    [Oops, that name's already taken.]

  • Rusty Shackleford

    “The likeliest solution, which is already on the drawing board in some
    form, is for the top 64 schools to break away from the NCAA and form
    their own professional association of four super-conferences, with
    limited connections to the universities and the old rulebook.”

    They can call it the Premier League.

    [Oops, that name's already taken.]

  • 1coolguy

    Come on Art – If the coaches are liable with JAIL TIME as the consequence, this whole issue becomes moot.
    You know it, I know it and Emmert knows it.

    The NCAA only needs to establish rules that result in jail time – it’s not that tough.

    End of strory.

    • Anon

      The NCAA rules are not law, and the NCAA is not the government so they can not make their rules have the power of law. 

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  • 1coolguy

    Come on Art – If the coaches are liable with JAIL TIME as the consequence, this whole issue becomes moot.
    You know it, I know it and Emmert knows it.

    The NCAA only needs to establish rules that result in jail time – it’s not that tough.

    End of strory.

  • Anon

    The NCAA rules are not law, and the NCAA is not the government so they can not make their rules have the power of law.