As NCAA's terminal case worsens, kids remain forgotten

by | Columnist

Sports is always a growth industry. The trick is in finding, biopsying and diagnosing the growth.

Right now, it is in guessing which news story is the true harbinger of the death of the NCAA, Last week, it was Texas A&M. Today, it's Miami. Next week, Holy Cross for its shameful "Grades For Studies" program. Or something. The details are all that ever changes.

But while everyone with a good story to tell says, "This is the death blow," everyone is wrong. Oh, the NCAA as we know it is dead. That's a sure thing. College sports has sold itself too long to too many disreputable people and cashed in on those sales for it to survive.

But what's killing it isn't the Ohio State Tattoo Dance, or Miami not paying attention while grifters and barnacles absorbed its players' attentions, or (Put Your Scandal's Name Here). It's the fact that it got too big to hear the better angels in its head ... that it chased the short money, the way so many other companies do ... that it used free labor without bothering to check on the temptations free labor are prone to chasing ... that it got too big to police itself, and stopped caring until it was too late.

Frankly, that it was too quick to whore itself out while losing the right to lecture its members on the evils of prostitution. And now its biggest members have asked the fundamental question: "Why exactly do we need you again?"

The short answer the NCAA will give is, "Because we provide the structure that keeps the playing field even for everyone." But the response to that from the largest schools is, "We don't want structure, and we want to get rid of that 'everyone' thing. We can do our own TV deals. We don't want you as our hired cops. We can schmooze senators on our own to keep the tax breaks we get through you now. You're an appendix, and you're starting to inflame us."

The NCAA, in short, lost control of the big schools, and the smaller schools can't help them. You can say all you want about the evils of the BCS, just to cite one skin rash on a critically ill patient, but the BCS is actually part of what's going to replace the NCAA. The BCS excludes all but the most powerful schools by design and, rather than protect the NCAA from its worst instincts, actually accelerated them.

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The Miami story, which has yet to be challenged in any meaningful way by anyone save the "You're being mean to my school" crowd, is a different stroke. While the NCAA's overall greed convinced the big schools that it didn't need middlemen to leaven their own greed, Miami is more about leaving children in the hands of predators. College sports is also very good about that.

It takes a lot to monitor athletes, especially once in a strange environment with no money or means to defend themselves. Even the hardiest and most cynical of 18-year-old has no idea what awaits them in a world where they are being pimped every day, and in many cases were pimped through their high school careers. That isn't a school function, but it is a function of what college sports has become -- talent evaluation, purchase and exploitation.

And the debate is about the crassest element of all that. Paying the players only assuages some guilt. Leaving them alone to strike their own deals with the free-range unscrupulous, robbing them of the right to move to a new school when the old one goes on probation or fires the father-figure who sold himself to them in the first place, discouraging them from going to class instead of the weight room, and even taking their scholarships away on a whim if they don't play well enough -- all these are far more criminal.

And the NCAA can't monetize that, so it doesn't bother. Ever. In fact, the NCAA's business model stands on the players having no rights whatsoever, and even if they got paid, those other conditions would still prevail. That nobody seems to raise their voices against that when they are championing the rights of players to be paid is backward in every way.

But it explains why the NCAA is doomed. It was powerful when it controlled the money, and the votes of a large membership. It doesn't now because conferences did they own deals, and are cutting out most of the rank and file. The 120 Division 1 football schools will be reduced by about half when all this shakes out, and the 350 Division I basketball schools by about 75 percent, because the big'uns eat first, and have stopped wanting to raise the little'uns.

The NCAA's best economic argument -- the tax exemption for institutions of higher learning -- will be replaced by the same tax exemptions for the mega-schools that those schools probably have already started lobbying for. And if they haven't, the elected representatives in those states know they'll be coming, and in true kleptocratic fashion, will anticipate their needs.

In sum, what killed the NCAA wasn't the BCS, or Miami, or Texas A&M, or Ohio State, or (name that school). It is death by a thousand paper cuts. Yes, justice by apology, where you get points off for not resisting NCAA arrest, is silly and stupid and dishonest, but that's not it either.

The NCAA lost control of the means by which the machinery churns, and the ability to bully the machine through those means. Period. They controlled one end of the tiger, but gave up the moral right to explain why they should. Now in a thoroughly amoral world, their power derives from having the money, and they don't have control of that anymore, either.

So with all due deference and credit to those reporters who have found the wormiest examples of college sports run amok, they didn't find the smoking gun in any of the scandalized schools, though the reporting was typically top-notch and correct and worthy of praise in all corners.

The smoking gun is Darwinism, and nobody has to corner an influence-peddling weasel like Nevin Shapiro to figure that out.

But the scariest part of all? The new world order, where each conference acts as its own NCAA, will still have plenty of room and tolerance for the next batch of Nevin Shapiros, because all we'll be doing in the end is exchanging the people in the big chairs. We still haven't bothered with protecting the athletes, or making them students, or saving them from a world that is way crueler than even they could ever know.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for


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