Until last week, it was possible to think of the NCAA as something other than a protection racket. No longer.
The extraordinary Taylor Branch cover story in the October issue of The Atlantic lays out in precise and killing inventory the mortal sins of the NCAA. Frank Deford called it "the most important article ever written about college sports." I'm sure you've heard about it by now. Please read it.
The Branch article -- likely sourced and reported with the same grave rigor he brings to his book-length histories, and along with months of bad news based on reporting from other sources on other fronts -- might mean that a kind of cultural critical mass has finally been reached. The NCAA is about to collapse. At least in our esteem. It is now understood, even by the most obtuse and earnest members of the sporting press that not only does the National Collegiate Athletic Association fail to prevent corruption, it requires it.
In that way, there's no going back.
And while it is well known among regular readers of this column that I suffer institutions and bureaucracies (even the one employing me) without patience or charity, I approach today's subject with as much fairness and disinterest as I can. Because the evidence against the NCAA needs no embellishment. The argument against it as any kind of operative force for good is overwhelming.
From Ohio State to the University of Miami; from Reggie Bush to Cam Newton to Jim Tressel; from Yahoo! Sports to the Columbia Journalism Review to a hundred other outlets in just the past few weeks (see sidebar for links and stories), consensus has been reached. Euthanize the NCAA. Blow it up. Tear it down. Cut it loose. The NCAA is a fire department staffed by arsonists.
It's a "clearinghouse" that brokers the sale of college-age athletic services to broadcasters and shoe companies for money. Sound familiar?
Just leave that $800 million on the nightstand, champ. Thanks.
What's left is how we fix it.
The answer first and fastest is to have schools pay the players. Because American logic dictates there is no problem caused by money that cannot be solved by money, too. I think this gets you right back where you started, in a tangle of conflicting missions. Are you there to educate kids? Or run for-profit minor league pipelines to the NFL and the NBA? And how long before it works its way farther down the food chain and your 10-year-old needs an agent to negotiate his Pop Warner deal?
Another thought might be to make the games small again. Re-scale everyone's priorities and expectations. Make it all as tidy and thoughtful and Minnesota modest as John Gagliardi's football program at St. John's. Impossible, not just because it purports to put toothpaste back in the tube, but because it ignores the Unified Field Theory of America: Follow the Money.
Which brings us back to Pay-for-Play, and the one decision that solves the problem, but the one nobody is ever likely to make:
Disconnect big-ticket sports from the schools.
Sell the college programs to the leagues with which they already do business. Sell college football to the NFL and the television networks for $25 billion and a cut of all future revenues. Same with basketball and the NBA. Let the leagues oversee player development and safety and training. Pay players in the same manner as minor league baseball players. As a condition of service, all players get an irrevocable academic scholarship to be applied whenever and wherever they choose, toward any degree from an AA to an MD. From the grandstands, nothing will have changed. But it ends the confusion and the corrosive fiction of the "student-athlete" and factory football masquerading as education.
How much worse could that be than what we have now?
As if more evidence of our cynicism were necessary, this weekend's news of conference shake-ups just arrived. This will be judged by well-meaning experts in well-meaning ways, but the truth is -- like gerrymandering congressional districts or the Five Families dividing America into territories -- it is only ever about gathering and keeping money or power or both.
College sports shouldn't get to make decisions like this anymore. Because college sports has lost its mind. E.g. …
The consequence of which used to be a mountain of writing measuring out change by the teaspoon. Thanks to Taylor Branch, and all the writers and reporters whose work he gathered, we can change that.
We can change it by asking two questions as we move into the future:
If sports are not important, why do we build this giant apparatus to produce them? And if sports are important, why is that apparatus so debased?
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.