Remember when sports were all about the game? Once upon a time, SportsCenter was all about great plays, draft picks, and naturally, sporting events. But lately, it seems as if 60% of coverage focuses on controversy instead. Professional athletes have gotten into so much trouble with endless steroid test failures, concussions, and even murder, there’s hardly any time left to talk about, you know, sports. While pro level sports have been in the hot seat lately, it’s the NCAA’s turn to go on the defensive. The NCAA is under pressure due to controversy with Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel, who is accused of profiting from signing autographs for memorabilia dealers. A decision is pending whether Manziel will be ruled ineligible for the upcoming football season, and this hot topic has turned into a discussion that questions long-held standards in the NCAA.
Manziel’s controversy is only part of a larger discussion on profit in college sports. The talking heads on TV say that college athletes should be paid, and it’s atrocious that universities are able to rake in millions while the stars of the show don’t see a thin dime.
But this argument overlooks the fact that not all NCAA teams are profitable. In fact, many college sports, particularly those outside of football and basketball, represent a major expenditure, not gain, in the university’s budget. As an NCAA athlete playing baseball at Xavier University, I was told by someone who worked in the Athletic Director’s office that baseball lost more money than any sport at the university. Offering each college athlete payment on top of a full scholarship would mean the death of many baseball, golf, tennis, soccer, and track programs, and even low-performing football and basketball programs. We’d be left with roughly 12% of football programs and maybe 60% of Division I basketball programs.
So if paying athletes isn’t a feasible solution, what is a fair alternative for the college athlete? Some argue that allowing them to independently profit from their fame is an option. After all, as ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke basketball player Jay Bilas points out, the NCAA is unabashedly making profits from player memorabilia, including controversial Manziel’s.
Bilas went on a Twitter rampage, explaining how hypocritical it is of the NCAA to investigate Manziel for signing his name on items while they profit from his memorabilia. Manziel wasn’t Bilas’ only example, either. He pointed out an autographed photo of Reggie Bush, who was stripped of his Heisman trophy for accepting illegal benefits from boosters, and, my personal favorite: a shirt commemorating Joe Paterno’s 400th win. The NCAA vacated all 400 of those wins after the horrific sexual molestation incidents with Jerry Sandusky under Paterno’s watch.
Bilas is employed by ESPN, who directly works with the NCAA to cover many competitions. Taking this stance is a damning blow to the NCAA’s reputation, and he certainly got their attention. After Bilas’s Twitter escapade on August 8th, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, announced that selling the jerseys was a “mistake” and the NCAA will “exit that kind of business immediately”. He also had this poignant quote:
“I can’t speak to why we entered that enterprise, but it is not appropriate for us and we’re going to exit it.”
He is, after all, only the president of the NCAA. Why should he know what goes on their website?
This isn’t the first time an issue with likeness and memorabilia has come up in the NCCA. The organization terminated its relationship with EA Sports this summer, the maker of the wildly popular NCAA Football series. While the game doesn’t use player names, it has always used the player number and likeness. The NCAA’s move to distance themselves from the series is widely assumed to be in response to an ongoing lawsuit filed by ex UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon in 2009. O’Bannon claimed that athletes should receive a cut of the profits earned by both NCAA and EA Sports while using their likeness in video games and memorabilia.
With people like Jay Bilas and Ed O’Bannon attempting to squash their reputation, the NCAA is now faced with determining their place in college athletics. It is more important now than ever for the NCAA to work with everyone involved in college athletics to figure out how to move forward in the best interest of the athletes.
There are no easy answers for the organization, which was originally created under Theodore Roosevelt to come up with safer rules for football. The intent of the NCAA’s rules were to protect student athletes from bookies bent on fixing matches. Fast forward to the 21st century, where we have multi billion dollar television deals and schools moving conferences left and right to chase the almighty dollar. Now, the stakes are much higher than thwarting the efforts of a few crooked gamblers.
If universities aren’t able to pay all Division I college athletes, does it make sense to allow athletes to make money any way they can? It seems innocent enough for players to earn money for signing autographs or making public appearances. But from the NCAA’s perspective, where do you draw the line? If a businessman is allowed to hand a player an envelope full of cash to sign memorabilia for his clients, the next step could be a shadier businessman asking the player to only win by 10 points instead of 13 on Tuesday night, allowing him to make good on a couple of wagers.
If you’re the NCAA, where do you go from here? Yes, they are making a ridiculous amount of money off of college athletes. But at the heart of the organization, they are working to protect the integrity of college athletics. With millions on the line and major media calling for their heads, it’s not just the reputation of the NCAA that’s threatened, but their actual existence as a part of college athletics. The NCAA’s smartest move in this situation is total transparency. Creating a massive roundtable discussion with heads of conferences, school presidents, athlete representation, and financial experts could determine a path of success for all involved.
Still, for this transparency to work, the NCAA will have to clean up its act and start doing a better job of reputation management. Taking shots through the media, acting hypocritically, and not appearing to act in the best interest of the athlete soils the organization’s reputation. It also puts universities in a position where they may elect to leave the NCAA on their own accord, a move that wouldn’t be good for anyone. During this time of change and uncertainty, it seems that all parties involved need to take a step back and consider what is most important: the education of these college athletes.