The NCAA is under fire on multiple fronts -- is anyone in charge?
Lawsuits and the threat of a student revolt in the form of unionizations may ultimately change forever the NCAA as we know it.
At some point in recent years college athletics became a Bob Dylan protest song.
Minus the folk guitar and harmonica, suddenly the system wasn't totally about the games or the coaches or the standings or the championships. It was an awakening, a realization, a revolution.
As college leaders gather for the Final Four this week in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, amateur college athletics have never been more under fire. Players, commissioners, ADs, coaches and, yes, lawyers are realizing their leverage.
It's not only just the NCAA's fault. That would be lazy. NCAA president Mark Emmert and crew may be lightning rods, but at the association's current pace of change they're going to be historic bullet points.
Perhaps even the NCAA itself will be nonexistent.
The association is operating under decades-old strictures that everyone accepted until the money got too big. Now everyone seemingly wants some of a billion-dollar windfall that cannot be denied.
"The NCAA had a chance to [change]," said Southern California-based attorney Mel Owens, who is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject.
Owens came to Michigan at age 17, played for Bo Schembechler then lasted 10 years in the NFL.
"They tweak with the times so they can keep up with the times. But the money overtook the times. The pace of money has outstripped the game itself."
The current revolution comes complete with an enlightened, educated, underground. They are educators who see the mission wandering far from the collegiate model. They are players like Northwestern's Kain Colter, inspired by an instructor asking, "I can't believe college athletes don't have a union."
They are lawyers descending on the NCAA like it was Big Tobacco. But unlike Dylan in the '60s there is no singular voice -- a voice that inspired millions, a voice that guided through the times that were a- changin'.
The state of college athletics and whatever comes next coming begs this main question: Who's in charge?
Open season on amateurism
Before answering, consider the multiple lawsuits challenging multiple subjects -- some on parallel, redundant tracks for reform. Consider that Northwestern unionization movement contains many of the same changes favored by the NCAA in terms of student-athlete welfare.
Multiple concussion lawsuits seek the same protections as a pending bill on Capitol Hill. BCS commissioners are advocating expanded medical protection. But such redundancy shouldn't exist. There should be some person -- or persons -- to say, "Hey, we all want the same things."
"Maybe it calls for a sports minister like other countries have," said former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said. "With all the issues we have in sport, a lot of times there isn't a centralized authority to deal with it."
What we're left with is open season on amateurism. The definition of the word is almost sure to change in the coming years. Players almost certainly will be paid -- something. They may have five figures waiting for them in rights fees after they graduate.
One day, players may be able to sign with agents while in school. Those agents then would be able to negotiate shoe and endorsement deals that would be ready to pay off once the player left school.
Players almost certainly will have more of a voice in their day-to-day obligations. The money and power will flow away from college presidents and coaches and toward those players, BCS ADs and commissioners.
It will be their amateurism model to tend, if we can even recognize the model in the future. If we can tolerate it.
"The notion of amateurism never fit the American culture," said Allen Sack, an influential business professor at the University of New Haven. "It was an early-19th century leisure class idea transported to this country."
We were raised on the purity of amateur athletics, the notion that athletes were competing for good ol' State U. Then the money blew up. There was corruption. Football and basketball boomed and the athlete's well-being was left behind.
An NCAA Tournament trip was nice for North Dakota State forward Marshall Bjorklund last month. But he had to save up money made from a summer job on a corn and soybean farm just to make rent back in Fargo, N.D.
"I think a little cash would be nice," Bjorklund said looking around the locker room. "There aren't any of us here swimming in a boatload of money."
Growing threats to NCAA model
On the other side they argue that a free education is enough. The college experience is what you make of it. The argument is no longer confined to the water cooler. The main issues now will be decided by higher powers, perhaps even the Supreme Court.
Who's in charge? Consider that while Emmert and the NCAA stick to their amateurism guns, one of the most powerful anti-trust law firms in the country has come out firing. Jeffrey Kessler's firm recently sued the NCAA and those BCS conferences (Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten) basically seeking that players be paid market value. No limits.
A high-priced anti-trust firm doesn't get involved thinking it might win.
"It's the basic wish of people to relate to the teams they're rooting for," said Kessler's partner David Feher. "Is it better to root for a team when the players can't get anything close to their fair worth -- and if they're injured they get nothing? Is that fair? Is that something you're going to root for?"
The concussion issue has descended into the 800-number trolling for class-action plaintiffs. Check out this ad from the Driscoll Firm in St. Louis.
Everyone's a critic. Everyone wants a day in court. But who's in charge?
Reaching a tipping point
Consider that a 36-year-old former UCLA linebacker is leading the unionization movement on an annual budget of $200,000. National College Players Association president Ramogi Huma spent this week pushing his case in Washington and to Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report.
"Players aren't supposed to be in it to want money," Colbert cracked, "they're supposed to be in it for the love of selling sponsorships for Tostitos."
In a serious moment, Huma told CBSSports.com that unionization could take hold by being a recruiting advantage.
"We're going to hit a critical mass," he said. "Recruiting is a very significant part of this. At some point parents and players are going to say, 'We have guaranteed protections at some schools.'"
Some now generally assume that the NCAA won't exist in its current form in a few years. That doesn't necessarily mean it will go away. It means the association, fans, ADs, college presidents will have to accept a new definition of what it means to play college sports. The old definition is simply outdated.
"The answer is to change the NCAA so the kids get what they deserve," Sack said, "not through collective bargaining but because the NCAA acts as it should act as a guardian for the student-athletes."
That time may be passed. In addition to the legal challenges, Rep. Tony Cardenas of California has introduced legislation to protect athletes. The Collegiate Student Athlete Protection Act basically targets BCS schools, those who generate more than $10 million in media rights.
The law would provide financial aid for those who lose their scholarship due to injury or illness. It would require an annual baseline concussion test for every athlete before participation.
The bill is meant to be amendment to the 1965 Higher Education Act. That's the same year Dylan recorded Like a Rolling Stone.
And the protests just keep coming.
Similar player protections are already on those parallel tracks mentioned above. The question becomes who gets there first: the NCAA, the courts or Washington?
And what are the odds that anyone in the current system agrees on one person to rule college sports?
The closest we have to what the NCAA might look like in the future is the Olympics in this country. It changed its amateurism model in 1998. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act stated amateurism wasn't a requirement for international competition. US Olympians were long ago allowed to accept compensation.
The college system needs a singular voice but the last one with enough power was former NCAA executive director Walter Byers. Byers ruled with an iron fist and will. But in 1984 his power diminished due to a Supreme Court ruling (see below). He left in 1988, later writing a book called: "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes."
A history of amateurism in decline
So how did we get to this point?
• In 1973 the NCAA went from four-year scholarships to one-year renewable scholarships. The system has not changed and athletes are still largely subject to the whims of coaches who deem they can't play.
• In 1978 Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) was created. Those schools weren't a factor in what happened six years later.
• The creation of I-AA allowed the remaining schools to consolidate their football in what was called the College Football Association. The 1984 Supreme Court decision in NCAA vs. Board of Regents deregulated college football. It allowed schools and conferences to strike their own deals.
After a brief downturn in rights fees -- and the boom in cable TV -- those fees skyrocketed.
• In 1992, the SEC instituted the conference championship game. It not only was a revenue producer but helped the conference win seven straight national championships in the BCS era.
• In 1998, the BCS formalized and centralized the power with the top six conferences. (Back then the Big East was also in the mix.)
• In 2012, the commissioners announced the four-team playoff beginning in 2014. That maximized profits even more. The commissioners essentially leveraged their schools as product to populate bowls. The highest bowl bidders won the right to participate in the playoff.
Example: The Sugar Bowl used a $40 million war chest to "buy" its way in. Much of that $40 million, it can be argued, was made for the Sugar hosting SEC teams over the years.
The growing player revolution
But it's only recently that the true revolution began. Players began to realize that perhaps room, board, tuition and books wasn't enough. As a result, we have Northwestern.
"This is just a consequence of the big NCAA overreaching," Owens said. "They've taken so much without modifying some of the rules for the players."
Realignment consolidated a growing pot of money into the hands of the few -- and rich. Concussions lawsuits multiplied to the point that 10 of them have been bundled in the Northern District of Illinois. The plaintiffs all want the same thing -- more safe playing conditions and effective monitoring. They also want to be taken care of financially if head trauma suffered when they're 20 affects them when they are 50.
Those Northwestern players won a key first hurdle in their effort to unionize. An NCAA steering committee is recommending that players have a seat at the table for policy change.
Those five power conferences consolidated their power to form the College Football Playoff. The $7.2 billion enterprise kicks off in the fall. The Indianapolis Star reported last week that the NCAA is nearing $1 billion in revenue. It doesn't matter that a large portion of that money is returned to the membership, it's that all the critics see is "$1 billion" and "NCAA" in the same sentence.
"Even if it wasn't done for money," Beebe said, "the perception is that [conference] realignment was done out of a concern for money, more than a concern for the student-athlete."
Some argue that players are indentured to millionaire coaches whose salary isn't subject to reforms. The free market has deemed that Nick Saban is worth $7 million per year. There are coaches making $5 million who haven't so much as won a division.
It was more than ironic that the first player taken in the 2013 NFL Draft (Eric Fisher, Central Michigan) played in a conference (MAC) whose programs are heavily subsidized by student fees. Fisher got paid. His fellow students helped pay for the training that got him to get to the NFL.
Emmert will most likely endure probing questions Sunday when he conducts his annual state of the union press conference at the Final Four. But in the current big picture, he admittedly has nothing more than a bully pulpit.
It's the way his term has played out. Emmert's mandate to reform from the NCAA board of directors went flat. Witness the overreach at Penn State, the screw up in the Miami case and the failed 2011 presidential summit. His organization is now attempting to restructure from within before the courts or Washington intercede.
"I'm apprehensive in that the system right now serves 450,000 student-athletes and provides remarkable opportunities for them," Emmert told the Indy Star. "Should that model be blown up, yeah, it would be a significant loss for America. So, of course we want to continue to support the collegiate model of athletics and think it's worth saving. Others disagree."
Beebe has some perspective that makes him seem prescient. During realignment, his five-page "white paper" distributed to conference leaders attempted to keep together the then-foundering Big 12.
Beebe concluded: "Creation of a few 'mega-conferences' may result in more governmental, legal and public scrutiny."
That, of course, has happened.
"Pressure to compete may rise with resulting higher salaries."
That, of course, happened.
"[There will be] ... tremendous pressure to pay ... student-athletes."
That, of course, is happening. That white paper is only four years old. It was also ahead of its time.
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