The NCAA can't justify its own existence

November 3, 2019

(Originally published October 22, 2018)

Imagine you were asked to defend the NCAA against charges it is a corrupt institution that unfairly exploits labor, and in so doing you must justify its continued existence. Where would you start?

In my experience, most people in this position take a similar tack as the NCAA itself. They assert that amateurism is noble and deeply attractive to fans of college sports. That is, if athletes were understood to be paid for their athletic performances in the same way as athletes playing sports in the NFL, NBA, or MLB are, college sports would cease to hold the same kind of attraction for its fans. Therefore, maintaining amateurism is essential to maintaining college sports as a viable institution, and the NCAA exists as a governing mechanism to enforce amateurism.

In that framework, the discussion becomes one about what constitutes “amateurism” and whether the NCAA is properly equipped to police member institutions and keep them from breaking rules designed to keep college sports from cannibalizing itself under the oppressive weight of professionalism.

This past week, Andy Schwarz wrote a concise rebuttal to this argument for Deadspin, noting that the NCAA’s history can be defined by its squishy and ever-changing definition of “amateurism”, and that empirical evidence strongly suggests fans of college sports don’t yet care about how much players get paid in money. That’s because in recent years the NCAA has allowed athletes to earn more and more money through certain carve-outs, yet it’s extremely hard to pinpoint any decline in passion for the games due to those rules changes.

But Schwarz’s piece also illustrates that the NCAA has all but conceded its most fundamental justification for existence. That is: The NCAA could argue it is an essential organization because it protects universities’ academic operations and reputations from athletics. By creating a bureaucracy to oversee collegiate athletics and ensure that all participating athletes are bona fide college students, member institutions ensure that their primary missions — academics, research, et cetera — may benefit from athletics without allowing athletics to warp the institutions in ways that compromise the work their scholars do.

The NCAA doesn’t do this. No, really. Look at the NCAA web site and the page for “Academics”. This entire page proceeds from the assumption that athletes who play sports for a given university are athletes first and that their main interests are to remain academically eligible in order to compete in their sport. Even when that page uses the phrase, “The ultimate goal of the college experience is graduation,” it’s in the service of trumpeting how the NCAA tracks graduation rates of athletes and that, “This measurement is unique in that it does not penalize a school when a student-athlete transfers to another school if the student was in good academic standing at the time of the transfer.”

See how that works? The NCAA web page explaining why the organization tracks graduation rates doesn’t say it’s to ensure that athletes are legitimate college students receiving a quality education — it’s to explain that if member organizations don’t follow the rules, there will be penalties.

You won’t find that argument anywhere, because the NCAA cut itself off from that justification when it decided the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill didn’t actually break any NCAA rules after it essentially created fake classes for athletes to pass with minimal effort and thus maintain athletic eligibility. Perhaps the NCAA doesn’t want to be in the business of determining what is a “fake” class at a given university, but if it’s determined that a school has completely subverted its academic mission in order to better compete at athletics and the NCAA won’t get involved, then what else is there worth fighting for the sake of “amateurism”?

The whole conceit of “amateurism” in the college context is that young people choose a college where they are most comfortable performing for their community, of which they are a member. There’s no point in connecting big-time amateur basketball to universities if the players aren’t actually university students and administrators don’t want them to be employees.

I keep coming back to an exchange between Tommy Craggs, then of Deadspin, and Charles Robinson, of Yahoo, from way back in 2011. Craggs makes a lot of sweeping (and very angry) points, but several have stuck with me:

You begin from the assumption, in your reporting if not in your personal beliefs, that the NCAA is a worthwhile institution with flaws. I begin from the assumption that the NCAA should be dynamited.


I think you want me to offer pragmatic, adult, incrementalist solutions to fixing the NCAA. And my point is that pragmatic, adult, incrementalist solutions only further consecrate the fundamentally insane notion that higher education and big-time spectator sports have anything to say to one another.

The rest of the world organizes its sub-pro sports according to a club model that seems to work well for a lot of people. This model sidesteps both the unsustainable pretense of amateurism and the idea that sports serve any pedagogical purpose whatsoever.

Craggs’s questions still hold up and remain unanswered. Probably because he’s right and the NCAA doesn’t actually exist to benefit universities in any tangible way; running and promoting big-time spectator sports benefits the administrators and coaches who make shitloads of money off the whole enterprise, much of which rightly ought to go into players’ pockets.

It would be nice if the NCAA had a better argument for its own continued existence, but then it wouldn’t be what it is today, and that won’t do for the people making bank off college kids’ underpaid labor.