Over the past few years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has begun to loosen the tight-fisted restraints it places on unpaid college athletes in order to stave off lawsuits that question the association's rules.
One of the most significant changes, starting in 2012, has been to allow schools to hand out multiyear athletic scholarships. Since 1973, the NCAA had banned schools from offering scholarships that lasted for more than one year; programs could cut players after each season, simply due to their athletic performance.
Of course, that policy seemed to fly in the face of the association's self-proclaimed purpose of promoting education and serving students who just happen to be very good at sports, but whatever.
While schools still aren't required to offer multiyear scholarships, there's no longer anything stopping them from doing so. Not on paper, at least. In practice, however, it's fair to wonder whether the NCAA and its member schools actually want to relinquish any of their power and leverage over college athletes—or if they simply want to make it look like they're doing so, the better to deflect unfavorable public and judicial opinion about an amateur campus sports system that increasingly enriches everyone involved except the players on the field doing the most important work.
To wit: after the multiyear scholarship ban was lifted, a NCAA executive privately suggested under-the-table rules for teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, a move that would effectively keep multiyear scholarships banned.
David Berst, a former NCAA vice-president for Division I governance who retired in 2015, sent a highly curious email following a university presidents' teleconference in 2011 that subsequently was uncovered by economist Daniel Rascher in the Rock v. NCAA antitrust case. Here's the key excerpt:
"I had another call from three commissioners from FCS and D-1 groups. I will try to dissuade the idea of override and encourage them to decide together how conferences in their similar circumstance might apply these rules in a manner that will minimize advantages among those at their relative competitive and budget levels. Attempting an override would really be dumb, but I'm not sure they get it."
In plain English, Berst appears to be suggesting that rather than vote against allowing multiyear scholarships, the smaller Football Championship Subdivision schools should just create a hush-hush gentleman's agreement to perpetuate the longtime ban.
This is bad. NCAA schools already collude to create an above-board, anti-competitive economic system that strips college athletes of the basic rights the rest of us take for granted—otherwise known as "amateurism," except on the days that association executives call it "the collegiate model." If Brest's email is to be believed, an association executive wanted to encourage some of those same schools to collude under the table, too.
While the NCAA did not respond to a VICE Sports request for comment, this comes as no surprise to longtime observers of college athletics.
"In such a closed society in which you've had such an amount of control in the whole history of college athletics, it's (an) amount of control they wouldn't want to relinquish," said University of Ohio sport administration professor and former Marshall University compliance official David Ridpath.
The NCAA and its members have a penchant for talking one way in public while acting another way in private. Evidence presented during the O'Bannon v. NCAA antitrust trial showed University of Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky trying to find out how to make money off former star quarterback Vince Young immediately after saying she wanted to help "protect" athletes from commercial exploitation. (O'Bannon's lawyers said, "She was our witness.") And when college sports executives try not to sound hypocritical, it can get even more ridiculous. NCAA vice-president for regulatory affairs Oliver Luck said last year that coaches can be paid, and players can't, because "coaches are adults." Big Ten commissioner said every wrong thing possible during the O'Bannon trial. Delany also said the Big Ten would move to Division III if players were paid, then said "jk."
Berst's uncovered email is just another example of how the NCAA functions as a cartel, and of the gulf between the association's gauzy, selfless-sounding propaganda and its exploitative, self-serving reality.
The good news? There's no evidence that the FCS conferences are actually following Berst's suggestion and secretly colluding to keep athletes' compensation packages as minimal as possible. (A number of conference spokespeople told VICE Sports that their member schools are free to hand out multiyear scholarships, which, duh, of course they are, that's the written rule.) Still, the fact that a NCAA administrator would blithely consider screwing athletes behind closed doors is telling.
Justifying the college sports economy requires cognitive dissonance. Athletic departments act like big businesses when it comes to television contracts and commercial sponsorships and staff salaries, but talk like small educational nonprofits when it comes to athlete compensation. It's not surprising that the NCAA's public and private messages don't always line up.
On an individual basis, there's nothing wrong with any school or conference deciding it doesn't want to hand out multiyear scholarships. That's how things work in free and fair marketplaces. Competitors try out different approaches. The best ones win. What is wrong is those same competitors agreeing not to compete, formally or informally, in order to suppress labor costs—in this case, the cost of getting an elite athlete to work for your sports program.
By suggesting that conferences hold hands and wink-wink, Berst crossed the same line the NCAA regularly stomps all over. And given that big-time college sports face ongoing legal challenges for being anticompetitive, his biggest mistake may have been putting his thoughts down in discoverable writing.
"I think there are too many constituencies out there, and now with the information, I think little can be kept secret," Ridpath said.
Collude, but hide it. If the rules don't allow it, skirt them. Do whatever it takes to keep power in the hands of the powerful. That's the takeaway from Berst's email, and it's enough to make you wonder if the NCAA's new era of supposed liberalization is just a way to sweep its core exploitation under the rug.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.