Alabama had barely hoisted the BCS national championship trophy late Monday night when the long-winded explications of the entire college athletic landscape were being churned out.
Actually, those missives have been continuing for a good long while. But in the context of a remarkable and dispiriting college football season — fraught with realignment, record streams of television money and a jarring sex abuse scandal — these arguments will take on a new complexion.
The college basketball season is in midstream, but football has been driving the argument more than ever, prompting such non-sporting journalistic figures as Taylor Branch and, more recently, columnist Joe Nocera of The New York Times (here and here) to launch tirades against the NCAA.
And with the NCAA convention beginning Wednesday in Indianapolis, sportswriter Patrick Hruby piles on to that theme, exhorting college athletes in revenue sports — football is his only reference here — to go on strike:
“It would make the bad situation of big-time college sports better by making it more equitable, more honest. By exercising their dormant power, players would become partners, not serfs, free to make negotiable demands instead of unheeded requests. Maybe college athletes don’t want cash. Maybe they want four-year, irrevocable scholarships and lifetime health insurance for their injuries. Maybe they want the same right to profit from their image and endorsement deals that college-attending actors and musicians take for granted. Or maybe they really do want a salaried piece of the multibillion-dollar pie. Whatever the case, the important thing isn’t the particulars; it’s that athletes would have the ability to ask. And that matters. At their core — or at least at the for-show ersatz core that ensures ongoing tax-exempt educational status – college sports are supposed to be about more than wins and losses. They’re supposed to be about building and shaping character. Do we want a system that conditions our athletes to think like atomized short-timers, too cynical and defeated to care about anything but the scraps they can grift from a corrupt system? Or do we want sports to nurture independent thinkers, empowered individuals who also can work together for a common good?”
This thinking is running headlong into more traditional reformers, who continue their windmill-tilting about regaining some notion of the amateur ideal. But Douglas Lederman of Insider Higher Ed is skeptical these calls will be heeded, since they haven’t been before.
A few details of his reporting jump out — the possibility of something like class-action Title IX litigation that may prompt cutbacks in football that women’s sports advocates have wanted for years. One such veteran, former Women’s Sports Foundation head Donna Lopiano, tries making her long-standing claims about the “arms race” more startling than ever, believing this also might quell the cult of the coach that led to scandals at Penn State and Ohio State.
That’s unlikely, as are renewed desires to strip the NCAA of its tax exemption. But Lederman casts a very long-range scenario for possible change:
“And while it is often suggested that the most-visible and richest sports programs own all the power in the NCAA, the Ivy League, Division III and other nonscholarship programs have something on which the sports powerhouses arguably depend: the ability to cloak themselves in the ‘amateur’ mantle that the most competitive and commercialized football and basketball programs have increasing difficulty claiming.
“In a restructured college sports landscape in which the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ are much more clearly and formally separated, it is not too farfetched to envision a group of angry members of Congress looking very differently than they historically have at the question of whether big-time sports is truly an amateur enterprise that warrants tax exemption as an educational activity.”