Any NCAA criticism-related blog post has the potential to branch off into 1,500-word territory. I'm not going to go that way here. Why? Because former Syracuse star and longtime NBA veteran Etan Thomas' criticisms of the NCAA are not particularly original.
Thomas, one of the NBA's most politically outspoken players in the past decade, decided Thursday to turn his HoopsHype column's attentions toward college sports, and what he calls the "exploitation" and "hypocrisy" inherent in amateur athletics. He shares stories about his girlfriend, a former Syracuse basketball player, who had to fight to keep her scholarship when her career was cut short by a knee injury, which doesn't really have much to do with amateurism but does make Syracuse's old women's basketball staff look pretty bad. He namechecks Kansas State forward Jamar Samuels, and writers Dave Zirin and Taylor Branch. He cites the NCAA's yearly NCAA tournament TV rights deal, and the large salaries of its executives. The regular characters are all here.
Per the usual for anti-NCAA screeds, there are legitimate grievances brought forth -- the Samuels ineligibility situation was ridiculous, and the way college players fight like Westeros bannermen for their school's chosen shoe company without (legally) receiving a dime of shoe company money is inherently absurd -- and there is no small measure of misunderstanding, particularly as it relates to the NCAA's mission.
Thomas writes that the NCAA is "strangely considered a 'non-profit,'" but fails to disclose why that distinction is strange. He, like many critics of the organization, doesn't seem to understand that the money the NCAA makes from the tournament does indeed go back to member schools, and the money member schools make for sponsorship deals and postseason appearances goes to pay for the dozens of non-revenue-producing sports, for which thousands of student-athletes receive scholarships each year.
Thomas doesn't mention that despite football and basketball revenue, many colleges are struggling to make ends meet; Maryland just dropped a score of nonrevenue sports, and only barely saved its legendary track team from the budget guillotine. He doesn't seem to understand that paying athletes, or making the system less exploitative for men's basketball and football players, requires reconciling these issues with Title IX legislation and a host of other concerns. If you pay some athletes, you have to pay them all. That's not really feasible. So which is more important: Paying football players? Or maintaining as many scholarship sports as possible? And why? Where's the solution?
Which is not to say the NCAA is not worthy of criticism. Sure it is. It's just that if you're going to criticize the NCAA, you should understand why the organization's problems are so intractable in the first place. If solving them were as easy as pointing and screaming, goodness knows they'd be solved by now.
Content aside, Thomas' column does register for a different reason: It marks the entry of a new voice into the debate, that of the former collegiate athlete. It's a perspective we don't often hear, but it may be the most important source of constructive criticism and understanding available. Thomas is notoriously outspoken, so his opinions won't presage an onrush of outrage from former collegians. But if they encourage others to speak up, to detail their experiences, and to open a window into their years on campus -- how they lived, how they felt, what needs to change, what needs to stay -- then the entire collegiate sports infrastructure can only benefit as a result.
Oh, and for what it's worth, Thomas also included a poem at the bottom of his column. His rhetoric may be off, but I suppose you can't fault the guy's passion.