Conference realignment couldn't have come at a worse time for the NCAA. All summer, the conversation has centered on the viability of the amateur model. All summer, writers and analysts have questioned whether the NCAA can maintain its amateurism ideal. We've asked whether cost-of-attendance scholarships are enough to prevent students from trading memorabilia for tattoos, whether an Olympics style model would work better, whether the entire system is too broken to be tweaked.
Two weeks ago, as the horses of conference realignment apocalypse were beginning to ride again, Atlantic writer Taylor Branch unveiled a devastating critique of the NCAA. In 14,000 words, Branch -- a noted Civil Rights journalist with a Pulitzer Prize to his name -- dove deep into the history of the NCAA's amateurism ideal, excoriating the organization for building an institution that allows athletes to be make millions for their universities without the addition of health benefits or a decent wage. Instead, Branch argues, the NCAA's claim that a free education is payment enough "echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves." NPR contributor and legendary sportswriter Frank Deford said Branch's story "may well be the most important article ever written about college sports."
Branch's feature was excellent, but his hyperbole was overblown, as Basketball Propsectus's John Gasaway and Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis have eloquently argued in the weeks since the story was published. Davis also argued well the point that Branch neglected: While paying players seems obvious in theory, it is nearly impossible in practice; only a sliver of schools turn a yearly athletics profit, and it is impossible to untangle salaries for revenue and non-revenue athletes without destroying most schools' entire athletics budgets. Au revoir, women's tennis. (Branch responded to Davis's criticism here; his point is not necessarily that athletes should be paid, but that there is no legal basis to disallow them from negotiating the right to do so. He's not wrong, either.)
In any case, the Branch story, as ESPN's Jeff MacGregor wrote,
... might mean that a kind of cultural critical mass has finally been reached. The NCAA is about to collapse. At least in our esteem.
You might argue that critical mass had already been reached. Either way, the situation fans woke up to last week was this: A besieged NCAA, one whose very model is now seen by a majority of the public as cynically outdated and/or morally wrong, sat by as some of its biggest member conferences and best programs engaged in a silly, backstabbing conference realignment routine. And why? For more money. Always for more money. As Michael Wilbon wrote after Syracuse and Pittsburgh coolly bolted the Big East for the ACC:
You wonder how a recruiter from Syracuse, just to pick the latest scoundrel, can look a football or basketball recruit in the eye in the coming months and tell him with a straight face to not sell his game-worn jersey for $500, or not to take a free dinner from an alumnus who owns the pizza parlor at the edge of campus, or to decline the $250 handshake from a booster who knows the kid has no means by which to pay his cell phone bill. You wonder how the presidents of universities, right now the biggest hypocrites on the planet, could have the gumption to lecture anybody on the concepts of honoring commitment and having integrity when as a group these days they have precious little, if any.
All of which is a very long way of getting around to the point of this post (and I promise there is a point beyond all this recent recounting): NCAA president Mark Emmert is fighting back. There's not much he can do, of course -- the NCAA has no control over conference realignment, and it never will -- but as responses in the face of fecklessness go, Emmert's was certainly worth mentioning. On Monday, he met with college athletic directors from around the country in Grapevine, Tex., where he delivered a stern lecture on how "embarrassed" administrators should be over the cognitive dissonance conference realignment created. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
“People today have greater doubt, greater concern about what we stand for and why we do what we do,” Emmert said to a packed room of athletic directors and faculty athletics representatives, who have all gathered here for their annual meetings. “And that is a huge problem for us.” [...]
Emmert said the general impression was that administrators only cared about money, they didn't explain why the realignment moves were not only a good thing for their school's bottom line but how that bottom line improvement was inherently a good thing for its hundreds of student-athletes:
“The world’s convinced that’s all we care about…that all this is about money,” he said. “I didn’t read many of us stepping up and saying that this will work really well for student-athletes because we’ll do X, we’ll do Y, it will create more resources, it will help us stabilize our programs.”
“It was all about the deal,” he said.
“The confusion and disruption of the conference realignment adds to, doesn’t detract from, our ability to get these things done,” he said. “Because, candidly, I think we were all embarrassed by some of that behavior, and here’s our chance to show what we really care about.”
We'll see. Frankly, the damage has been done. The NCAA may never again convince the majority of its fans that its higher mission -- "to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount" -- is what the NCAA says it is. Before, the NCAA's problems in driving this message home centered on its governance of revenue sports, how its disciplinary structure seemed antiquated, arbitrary and inconsistent. This is a much more difficult gap to bridge.
Emmert can't tell college athletics directors to stop doing what's best for their schools. But he can ask them to keep the athletes -- and the opinion of college sports' millions of fans -- in mind.
It may be too late to salvage this mess now. Emmert's power is limited to words. But at least those words were the right ones.