Dan K. Thomasson: NCAA ruling and the myth of the student athlete

08/12/2014 8:02 PM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

It may take a bit longer, but it seems clear that college athletics is about to change dramatically, and one of the most autocratic, often overbearing institutions ever conceived might never be the same.

It’s about time.

The NCAA, with its doorstop rules book and its pretense at amateurism, until now has managed to sidestep attacks on its lucrative business model built on the exploitation of mainly young men and a few women. But two decisions have produced severe cracks in the organization’s future.

The first of these is its decision to award its top five richest conferences in football and basketball new autonomy to establish their own rules. They would no longer have to abide strictly by the regulations that apply to the NCAA’s other divisions. More important, however, is a judge’s rulings that the member institutions are in violation of antitrust laws by denying athletes any share of the revenues gained through the use of their names and images in video games and television broadcasts.

While the ruling by federal Judge Claudia Wilken didn’t go as far as many would like, it certainly was more than a mere harbinger of things to come. The big money producers are about to have their pockets picked, and a whole lot of people, including fans, are going to cheer.

Wilken suggested that trust funds could be set up to pay the football and basketball players $5,000 a year after they graduate. The NCAA’s legal team, saying only that it would appeal the decision, apparently saw some relief in the fact the amount of remuneration could be capped.

This is an enormously complex issue that will take several years to play out. It involves the crumbling concept of amateurism whose enormous revenues belie it is anything but professionalism. It also poses the thorny question of who actually should benefit. Only those players whose sports produce the money? If so, should a quarterback make more than a lineman? Or a 20-points-per-game guard get more than a journeyman forward?

What about the impact on Title IX? The law requires balance between men and women in the number of scholarships afforded, and that includes the 85 allowed for football where there is no female equivalent. Should football be set aside, as it has long been argued? What is the value of a scholarship, and should the baseball players or soccer players or members of the track team or the swimmers be excluded because they are non-rev sports?

This has been coming for a long time. More and more it has become clear that a mere college education in trade for athletic services, when the school is benefiting to the tune of millions, wasn’t going to last much longer. The NCAA’s presidents whose uncompromising approach has led to bizarre petty judgments – they once punished a player for posing fully clothed for a sorority charity calendar – are as outmoded as their constant reference to “student athletes.”

Obviously, in basketball the big schools already are a professional minor league for the NBA, with the “one and done” concept of college attendance more prevalent every year. Whole starting fives leave for the NBA after the freshman year. Players only have to make their grades for one semester to be eligible to play through tournament time before declaring for the NBA draft.

So why maintain the fiction? For just the reasons the judge’s ruling covered. To be able to continue a model that produces significant amounts of money at an insignificant amount of cost. Feeding and housing athletes in reality is minuscule when compared with the financial gain to the school. Tuition in reality costs practically nothing. The expense comes in the high salaries being paid the coaches, and a lot of that is offset by the contributions of alums with deep pockets and the TV networks.

Those who have played major college athletics, at least in the modern era, will attest to the truth of the often repeated allegation that signing the contract is tantamount to slavery. They own you.

But the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and from those who claim they should have union bargaining rights to those who demand recompense beyond the price of a scholarship to those big boys who can now make their own rules, the NCAA is feeling the first tremors of an earthquake.

Dan K. Thomasson is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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