How the NCAA is like the Kardashians

Updated: December 16, 2012, 5:02 PM ET
By Jay Bilas

"That's not what college sports are about."

As the Big East continues its metamorphosis and conference realignment continues in pursuit of maximum revenue, we all hear the phrase. While backroom decisions are made by well-paid conference commissioners and executives of NCAA members -- and players have no say and no influence whatsoever -- the phrase is uttered. It has been uttered so cavalierly so many times over the years, it has become almost required language. Whenever money issues in college sports are discussed, especially the NCAA's policy of limiting athletes to "expenses only" and allowing the athletes no voice and no rights in the process, this well-worn phrase is reflexively trotted out. The mere use of the phrase is expected to end the discussion in favor of the NCAA's position.

I would submit that college sports are about a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To further illuminate the point, let's consider another endeavor and compare it with college athletics.

What are weddings about?

Fundamentally, a wedding is a ceremony to recognize and celebrate the solemn vows of two people committed to a lifelong union. It is also about religion, often sanctioned by a religious institution and held before the members of that institution. It is also about civil rights, the union being sanctioned and recognized by the government. It is also about tradition and custom.

And it is also about business, with an entire industry surrounding it. From wedding planners, caterers, dress makers, videographers, musicians and florists to invitations, jewelry, hotels, open bars and bridal registries, a wedding is supported by a gigantic industrial complex estimated at more than $40 billion annually. A wedding is also about showing off and having a big party to get everyone together. It is about family, friends, business networking and plain, old fashioned fun. There are big, spectacular and expensive weddings, and there are small, modest and intimate weddings.

And a wedding can also be about the sale of media rights, with news and entertainment coverage from helicopters to paparazzi to reality television. Yes, a wedding can even be about the sale of the rights to the union of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. Imagine, if you will, that the Kardashian wedding was based upon a real commitment, or substitute another celebrity wedding if you like. The principles are the same.

There are clear similarities between the wedding industry and the NCAA's conduct of college athletics. One could argue that college athletics is fundamentally about education. It is about learning important life lessons through the pursuit of excellence on the court or field. It is about teamwork, leadership, hard work and discipline. It is about high-level competition among full-time college students.

But college sports are also about business. The NCAA has sold nearly every aspect of college athletics and has helped create a multibillion dollar industry and has turned its events into entertainment spectacles every bit as professional and sophisticated as any professional league, and every bit as profitable as the wedding industry. The NCAA has sold its media, advertising and marketing rights -- and has held out its athletes as billboards to tout ticket sales and as vehicles for jersey sales. They have pursued revenue from athletics in almost every way imaginable.

Which leads one to this question: Has the NCAA become the Kardashians?