BY Art Thiel 03:37PM 04/18/2014

NCAA reforms you can trust: Fixing the bagels

Poor Mark Emmert. He could be admiring cherry blossoms on the University of Washington campus. Instead, he is decriminalizing cream cheese and calling it NCAA reform.

NCAA president Mark Emmert has decriminalized cream cheese. Golf clap. / NCAA

Give Mark Emmert credit. He knew all along that a bagel with cream cheese constituted a meal only in the perverse, collective imagination of the NCAA, of which he is president. Darned if he isn’t fixing that silly rule, and in just four quick years after he left the University of Washington presidency.

“The biggest problem was, the NCAA has historically had all kinds of, I don’t know how to describe it (except to say) dumb rules about food,” Emmert said on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” show Friday morning. “The infamous one is you can provide between meals a snack, but you can’t provide a meal. Well, then you got to define what’s the difference between a snack and a meal? So it was literally the case that a bagel was defined as a snack — unless you put cream cheese on it. Now it becomes a meal. That’s absurd.”

As you may have heard, the NCAA this week approved reforms that would provide unlimited meal service for scholarship athletes. The changes, he said, had been in the works for two years. So it was mere coincidence that news of the changes came shortly after Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut guard who was MVP of the Final Four, made national headlines in a televised interview that said he had numerous nights of going to bed “starving.”

Later in the interview, Emmert said that the timing was coincidence. I tend to believe him. What I don’t believe that Emmert and all the king’s men will be able to put the NCAA back together again, at least in any form recognizable as Humpty Dumpty, by decriminalizing cream cheese.

Inane and notorious as was the bagel rule, which permitted schools to offer bagels, fruits and nuts to athletes at any time, but prohibited offering spreads such as cream cheese or peanut butter with the bagels — that was an impermissible “meal” — it was not a by-law left over from some musty Ivy League nitwit from the 1950s.

The bylaw was adopted in 2009, when big TV money was already washing over the big-time college sports landscape, exposing hypocrisy after hypocrisy.

As recently as February, three Oklahoma football players were busted for a similar nutritional felony — eating too much pasta at a team celebration. The school turned them in, they were cited by the NCAA and forced to donate $3.83 per player to charity.

Beyond fodder for a grateful cadre of late-night comedians, the NCAA absurdities are providing career boosts to a brigade of lawyers who sense “big tobacco” money, the kind of reward when truths about a giant industry are finally exposed in ways everyone can understand.

My analogy is to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The USSR didn’t fail because of some military assault from the West, it failed because its own massive bureaucracy designed to prop up a corrupt, inefficient system that tried to circumscribe behavior, finally provoked revolution.

NCAA observer John Infante, a former compliance director at Colorado State and Loyola Marymount who writes the Bylaw Blog, summarized well to the Los Angeles Times the belated attempts at reform underway to forestall the litigation piling up, blizzard-style, at the NCAA’s door.

“I’m sure if there was a proposal to get rid of (the pasta overdose rule), somebody would have an excellent reason where it would lead to the end of the world for their team,” Infante said. “That’s what makes it so difficult to slim down this rule book that’s been so built up over the years.”

An abrupt unbinding of the 432-page rule book, tediously assembled over decades to doggedly preserve the last place on the sports globe where amateurism is not only tolerated but exploited, will create chaos. Which apparently will be necessary.

As Infante said and Emmert also mentioned Friday, the NCAA regulates 350 schools, some of which have a $5 million annual budget for all athletics, while the University of Texas has a $175 million budget.

It is a failing management system because it cannot find ways to distribute revenues and rules that provide some semblance of fairness over such diverse needs and wants. The fact that it took five years to decriminalize cream cheese tells the world how resistant the NCAA is to real reform.

Reform, up to and including a declaration of professionalism for the big-revenue sports, should have happened years ago. But it took many athletes to be backed into a corner, and absurdities sufficient to fill a Salvador Dali exhibit, to convince many who don’t receive paychecks from NCAA-governed institutions that self-reform is not possible.

Merely culling the rulebook a week before a vote to unionize by the football players at Northwestern is laughable. Unfortunately for him and all of college sports, Emmert is paid to defend the indefensible, and he did it again Friday in the ESPN interview.

“The reality is that the model serves more than a half a million students every year very well,” Emmert said. “It produces $2.7 billion in scholarship support. Are there things we need to fix? You bet there are. But you don’t throw that baby out with the bathwater. We have to find ways to change and improve without ruining that successful model.

“It’s far too easy to look at this huge top-line revenue number and say ‘Everyone is making money,’ when the reality is that that top-line number supports a half a million kids.”

And the old Soviet Union produced toilet paper. But babushkas had to stand in a mile-long line to buy it.


  • Tian Biao

    excellent article, great fun to read. I don’t think the NCAA even knows how easy a target it is. But yeah, the system is broken, and changes are on the way. or should be. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. keep us posted – i missed the whole cream cheese deal!

    • art thiel

      Thanks. The NCAA is an easy target, has been for decades, because they so resist common sense reform.

  • Will

    Ah, what exactly is (or was) the purpose of the NCAA? I ask because they come off looking like the enforcers – goons with guns – for racketeers, as seen in countless film noir movies.

    • art thiel

      The original purpose was to make sure that all football fields are 100 yards and all baskets are 10 feet. The NCAA is very good at those things. They also make a nice 68-team hoops bracket, but still can’t make a credible football playoff. So their expertise dwindles quickly once a tape measure is taken from them.

  • 1coolguy

    The scholarship athletes get a free education, free meals, free lodging, free tutors and I’m sure other benefits. I suggest that is worth a minimum $50,000 to a DI school and over $100,000 to the more exclusive schools.
    WHAT are they griping about?
    I suggest taking a poll of the rest of the student body and see whether they would agree to such terms in exchange for playing a game.

    Of course all the whiners have a ton of choices: Drop out and do something else, go to a JUCO, go to a DII or DIII school or simply go to college as a student.

    I would expect the NCAA to come out with a contact for the scholarship athletes that essentially says for these benefits, you agree to play a game for us. If anyone doesn’t want to sign, not a problem, they can do other things, some of which are listed above.

    • Tian Biao

      Coolguy – the system works well for some student-athletes. it works for the ones who want to be students, and there are a lot of them, and they play a lot of different sports. But it doesn’t work for the players who want to be athletes, not students, and they’re the ones who make the money. There is no minor league football or basketball – the NCAA is the minor league, so these guys have no other place to showcase themselves. that’s why one-and-done is so common – they want the basketball games, not the degree. The bigger problem is just the imbalance, the amount of money the ncaa hauls in, vs the tiny pittance they parcel out to the players. the system is broken. but hey, the bagels are fixed!

      • RadioGuy

        I go you one further: The vast majority of scholarship athletes at D1 colleges are getting their tuition, books, room and board subsidized by their football program. I don’t blame the football players one bit if they’d like a better deal for themselves. Somehow I doubt the same 72,000 people spending millions at Husky Stadium on any given Saturday last fall will do the same to watch a UW sand volleyball match this spring.

        It’s a hell of a thing that it’s okay for an 18-year-old to sign up for the military and be shipped off to the Middle East in less than one year, but that same 18-year-old has to wait up to four years to start earning a paycheck playing sports. Like it’s safer to battle Al Qaeda than the 49ers. Go figure.

        • art thiel

          Besides that, you touch on another point against the current structure: Through no input of the athletes, the schools are holding hostage the the future of athletes in the non-rev sports by saying if we don’t maintain the current system, these other kids will suffer.

          Who said college football and men’s basketball players are morally and physically responsible for the other 500 or so scholarship athletes on campus?

    • art thiel

      You’re missing a key point, cool. The demands on time and health to execute the scholarship requirements nearly eliminate for many the ability to take advantage of the shot at an education. The fact that some can do it is often a tribute to a good high school education and supportive family where they have learned the key to college survival — time management.

      Those athletes coming from poor school districts and/or little or no family support often are athletes first, second or third who have almost no shot at managing academics and athletics. So many are doomed to fail before they step foot on campus because they aren’t prepared to succeed.

      Reforming the current structure to end the hypocrisy of amateurism, then professionalizing the games of revenue sports, will help give athletes choices — play sports only and be compensated, or choose life-skills classes and a chance to do high-end academic work after the expiration of eligibility.

      What is wrong with giving kids more routes to achieve goals?

  • Big

    Perhaps,Shabazz has a money management problem? If he lives off campus he pays rent, utilities, and food from his scholarship. If he lives in a dorm the above is covered all but spending money. Not saying the system isn’t crazy.