The independent news organization of Duke University


The problem with the NCAA

The drumbeat has gotten louder and louder and louder. It echoed when a rash of unnecessary suspensions and penalties befell players like A.J. Green and Michael Crabtree. It reverberated when North Carolina, Miami and Ohio State, three of the best-known football programs in the country, were exposed as “cheaters.” Now, with the publication of historian Taylor Branch’s missive “The Shame of College Sports,” that drumbeat has reached its crescendo.

The NCAA is broken.

Whether the organization is doling out punishments for accidental offenses, or further denying college athletes—who can be individually responsible for over a million dollars in revenue to their school—their due payment, the NCAA is an organization with a shoddy moral foundation (which Branch makes clear in exacting detail) that fails in its claim to protect amateurs.

The examples of their failings boggle the mind—and there are far too many to include here. It is important to note, though, that the organization’s secrecy and Byzantine rulebook have masked its failures, making it a relatively new phenomenon to advocate that the organization make serious changes. Branch, for instance, said he went into writing his article as an “idealistic reformer” but the “scales fell from [his] eyes.”

Likewise, another big name in college athletics also saw the light when discussing the NCAA. This then-reformer also grew disillusioned with the organization, and actually wrote in his memoir that it should be broken up: “Prosecutors and the courts, with the support of the public, should use antitrust laws to break up the collegiate cartel—not just in athletics but possibly in other aspects of collegiate life as well.”

That was Walter Byers, who headed the NCAA for 37 years. His words should stir any fan of college athletics.

But this is a column in a Duke paper after all. Why should a Duke fan care about the problems of this organization?

First of all, let’s not be so naïve as to think the NCAA’s rules have not affected Duke lately. Over the summer, men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski offered the class of 2012’s Alex Poythress a scholarship while the star forward was enjoying an off-day between two tournaments with his AAU team.

This technically could have been a violation. An NCAA rule prohibits coaches from contacting recruits before they finish playing in amateur tournaments; so, in other words, Krzyzewski, who has never had even a whiff of impropriety, offered a scholarship a few days too early, and could be punished for it—all because of a little-known, obscure rule tucked somewhere in the rule book’s hundreds of pages. There has been no public resolution to the violation, so it may technically still be pending, even though Poythress doesn’t list Duke among his top four schools anymore. Even a Duke hater would see a problem with this.

There is a much more egregious example of the NCAA’s feelers hurting a Blue Devil, though. In Nov. 2009, Nolan Smith was suspended two games for playing in an unsanctioned summer league. Luckily for Duke, this suspension fell when the team played UNC-Greensboro and Coastal Carolina, but can one really, with a straight face, make the case that Smith deserved a punishment for playing in games in which he received no financial gain, or that gave him any sort of competitive advantage?

I wrote that last sentence, by the way, in my room, while wearing a Duke blue No. 2 jersey that I purchased around the same time as Smith’s suspension. The then-junior received no compensation for that jersey, a jersey that I didn’t buy just because I am a big fan of the number “two.” Smith also received no compensation when he played, two years later, in an NCAA tournament that made $771 million in TV rights alone.

But he did suffer questions and media glare for that two-game suspension, which was handed down by an organization purportedly designed with his best interests at heart.

Smith was a victim of a controlling mentality, one that has been a fact of life at the NCAA from its very beginning. Branch writes that the personnel book under the first head of the NCAA, Byers, included instructions on how to draw drapes at the NCAA headquarters. Byers’ rule book for athletes and coaches was, and is, many hundreds of pages long.

“The NCAA’s rules for external behavior, governing the athletes, have grown ever more complex,” Branch wrote me in an e-mail. “Because the NCAA can’t dream of banning a big football school from TV appearances, for fear of revolt by the school or its conference, it has to focus on minutiae like A.J. Green’s jersey. This asserts a pose of detailed control at the risk of ridicule.”

That pose of detailed control could be made manifest at Duke in the future. It could mean a suspension of a football or basketball player at a critical time for some silly reason. It definitely means that we, as fans, have to feel morally queasy watching our fellow students win, lose and be injured for our entertainment, without any compensation other than a full ride at Duke.

Duke’s Charles T. Clotfelter, Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of Public Policy, as well as the author of “Big Time Sports in American Universities,” agreed that there is an economic problem in all of this.

“What is happening now gives everyone the benefit from the market except the athletes,” he told me. “They’re kept out because the universities have made a deal not to pay them. In economics, we call that a cartel.”

He warned, though, that recognizing there is a problem does not mean there is a perfect solution.

I agree. But still, something must be done.


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