Dear White House: Don't Let the NCAA Scam You

Obama administration officials are reportedly meeting with the NCAA, which wants an antitrust exemption. Will the White House get suckered?

by Patrick Hruby
Jan 13 2015, 7:00pm

Photo via WikiMedia Commons

So, it appears you, President Obama, are about to wade into the ongoing debate over the future of big-time college sports--which is to say, the future of who controls the Ozymandian piles of cash in big-time college sports. According to USA TODAY Sports, Obama administration officials, college athletic directors, and National Collegiate Athletic Association executives are scheduled to meet this week in Washington, D.C.

On the agenda? Preventing campus sexual assault. A previously-introduced mentoring program. Worthy, non-controversial, non-financial stuff.

Oh, and then there's this: the prospect of a presidential commission to review the "state and direction" of major college sports.

Read More: Does the NCAA Even Care About Concussions?

Recently proposed by former Congressional representative Jim Moran, such a commission would invariably make recommendations about--or even work with--Congress to pass new laws governing-the college sports economy. The only sector of the American economy where amateurism reigns. Where middle-aged men in khakis get paid for their hard work. Where young men in football pants do not. A sector that has been reduced to philosophical and moral ash by Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch; that is slowly being dismantled in federal court; and that was once dubbed a "neo-plantation" by former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, who just happens to be the guy who built the damn thing.

Look, I know that President Obama is a sports fan. He seems to enjoy his yearly March Madness picks. So he probably realizes--as you probably realize--that campus sports power brokers aren't dropping by the West Wing for a sightseeing tour. Or even just to talk mentoring and sex assaults. No, they're coming to Washington for the same terrible and terribly worthwhile reason everybody comes to Washington.

Photo by Pete Souza, via WikiMedia Commons

To lobby for government goodies, of course.

Specifically, the NCAA wants an antitrust exemption. A Get Out of O'Bannon Free Card. A legislative fig leaf that will allow the association's member schools to keep on keepin' on with the lucrative business of not allowing college athletes to be compensated for their market value. And to get one, the NCAA is going to have to convince your administration--as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill--that it's a swell idea. That somehow, some way it serves the public good to prevent University of Georgia back Todd Gurley from signing his autograph for money, lest that money ... um, I don't know ... lest that money become taxable by the Internal Revenue Service and in a tiny way help us pay down our enormous deficit?

Okay. You see the problem here. There's no good reason to support amateurism in big-time college sports, anymore than there is to support it in college theater, and definitely no good reason to ensconce it as a matter of federal law. But still: if the NCAA feels threatened and pushed into a corner--which it does--it's likely to ask anyway. And that means scamming. Serious scamming. The same scamming the association has been pulling off for nearly a century, duping the general public and the federal judiciary alike with dubious math and gauzy appeals to the revered tradition of amateurism.

Given your busy schedule, President Obama--ISIS, Russia, the economy--you likely haven't been paying attention to the association's favorite tricks. Not to worry. I've been on it. As you head into your meeting this week, here are a few to watch out for:

College Sports Don't Need Saving

Last year, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with six technology companies--including Apple and Google--that prevented them from continuing to engage in illegal agreements to not compete for skilled workers. The companies' collusive behavior looked a lot like college sports amateurism, where schools agree to not offer skilled athletes any compensation beyond room, board, and tuition.

Let's try a thought exercise. Imagine if those same tech companies hadn't settled with the Justice Department. Imagine if Apple and Google--combined market cap as of last October: about $1 trillion--had instead announced the creation of a "Coalition to Save Silicon Valley," and then asked for a White House meeting in order to secure some federal help.

Would you have taken them seriously? Or would you have laughed their idea right out of the West Wing?

Guess what: campus athletic officials are doing the exact same thing. Only not as a punchline. From USA TODAY Sports:

... [this week's White House] meeting is expected to precede the announcement of a so-called "Coalition to Save College Sports" spearheaded by the 10 conference commissioners in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The specific agenda for the meeting, as well of the purpose of the coalition, is still being developed ...

Still being developed? The name says it all. College sports are in danger! If federal courts free schools to pay greedy football and men's basketball players whatever they decide to pay, those same schools won't be able to afford volleyball! Costs already are too high! Only a handful of schools make money on sports in the first place! Save us, Obama! You're our only hope!

Photo via WikiMedia Commons

This is bullshit. By any meaningful financial measure, the campus athletic industry is thriving. March Madness earns the NCAA roughly $771 million annually. ESPN is paying schools $7.3 billion over 12 years for the rights to broadcast the new college football playoff. Two years ago, USA TODAY Sports reported that athletic directors at FBS schools were paid an average of $515,000 a year. A few weeks ago, the University of Michigan lured football coach Jim Harbaugh away from the San Francisco 49ers with a $5 million annual salary--a deal that could be worth closer to $8 million a year with incentives and deferred compensation. Just for reaching last night's national championship game, Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer earned a $50,00 bonus; for the season, his nine assistant coaches reportedly will receive almost $1.3 million in bonuses.

Does this sound like a troubled field that needs a Washington bailout?

In truly troubled fields--like, say, the newspaper industry I used to work in--companies contract. They go out of business entirely. Everything shrinks, from salaries to staff sizes to production runs, because demand is dropping and there simply isn't as much money to be made. Smart investors flee. Startup-minded entrepreneurs look elsewhere.

By contrast, big-time college sports are growing, not shrinking. Since 1984, 12 schools have left Division I basketball--but 87 schools have joined. Similarly, seven schools have departed the Football Bowl Subdivision, while 27 have entered.

The most recent school to drop out of FBS football, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, is the first institution to do so since the University of the Pacific in 1996. UAB officials claimed their decision was rooted in basic math: football was costing the school too much money. This turned out to be bogus, a claim rooted in sloppy, possibly dishonest accounting. The same sort of creative bookkeeping that allows the NCAA to claim that only 20 schools make money on sports.

Faced with the prospect of having to make the same sort of competitive bids for athletes that they already make for coaches, assistant coaches, recruiting coordinators, strength and conditioning gurus, athletic department bureaucrats, actual professors, and even talented post-doctoral students, schools cry poor. In the O'Bannon trial and in public statements, athletic officials repeatedly have warned that if athletes such as Gurley are allowed to enjoy the same open market for their services currently enjoyed by every other American, then universities will have to slash scholarships in other sports in order to pay for football and men's basketball. Also from USA TODAY Sports:

... a variety of university officials have expressed concern about how increased scholarship costs-and ongoing antitrust litigation related to what athletes can receive while playing college sports-will affect their schools' ability to maintain the number of teams they now field. In an October appearance the National Press Club in Washington, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun also expressed concern about the future of colleges' Olympic sport programs ...

Again, this is bullshit. Scary, unsubstantiated rhetoric. Here's the reality: there's plenty of money in the college sports system. Enough to fund women's lacrosse and a signing bonus for the next Cardale Jones. Schools don't need to cut Title IX educational opportunities. They need to cut athletic department fat and systemic, unnecessary spend-it-because-you-have-it gold-plating, like the University of Alabama's $9 million, 37,000-square foot athlete weight room.

The good news? That's totally doable. As I've written before, the website examined men's non-revenue sports spending between Division I schools with major football teams (like Syracuse University) and those without (like Georgetown University) in 2009-10 and 2010-11. It found that expenditures for the major football schools were higher across the board. Likewise, Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky calculates that major football conference athletic departments spend an average of roughly $350,000 more per team on non-revenue sports than their small-time football counterparts.

There's an old saying in Washington: never let a crisis go to waste. When it comes to campus sports, don't be fooled. There is no crisis. There's just a group of athletic officials trying to frame things as such, simply because they'd rather not share.

Big-time college sports need as much saving as Silicon Valley.

Education Conflation

Prior to college football's national championship game, Ohio State's Meyer was asked if players should be allowed to make money of their names. According to Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, he replied that he wanted to "think about that" before answering:

... "certainly, the player welfare is more important to me than handing them a check," Meyer said. "That includes the education, life after football, preparing them for life" ...

NCAA executives know that you care about education. They know that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan--a former Harvard basketball player who has worried out loud about the academic preparation of college athletes--cares, because that's basically his job. They know that Congress cares, too, because nobody ever got reelected as an anti-education, fuck school and the kids' futures while we're at it candidate.

Arne Duncan, baller. Photo via WikiMedia Commons

As such, expect college sports officials to sell you the same bill of goods they tried to sell O'Bannon judge Claudia Wilken--that amateurism deserves antitrust protection because it's essential to the mission of educating athletes. That somehow, some way, people who aren't allowed to earn money are better students than people who are, because as a NCAA legal brief put it, amateurism forces college athletes to spend their time "doing what students do rather than trying to make as much money as possible, which is what professionals do."

In her 99-page O'Bannon ruling, Wilken found this line of reasoning largely unpersuasive. "Student-athletes would receive many of the same educational benefits ... regardless of whether or not the NCAA permitted them to receive compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses," she wrote. And no wonder. There's no empirical evidence to support the association's position. At least none that I can find. Not a single study. If paying campus jobs were deleterious to education, you'd expect schools to ban them for all students. They do not. As Wilken also wrote, it's not clear that "paying student-athletes would be any more problematic for campus relations than paying other students who provide services to the university, such as members of the student government or school newspaper."

When college sports officials wave bloody transcripts and genuflect at the altar of education, they're not being completely insincere. Most of them also want athletes to graduate, and maybe even learn something en route to a diploma. But when they link doing so to amateurism? They're bullshitting you.

Quid Pro What, Exactly?

Last summer, both the House and the Senate held hearings about college sports. After each one, I asked a few lawmakers about a NCAA antirust exemption. Was it even possible?

No one sounded optimistic. Nobody ruled it completely out, either. Time and again, people like Congressional representative George Miller (D-CA) told me the same thing: it seemed like a big ask. As in, Washington is all about horse-trading, and what could the association possibly give Congress in return for such a plum piece of legislation?

After pondering the question, here's what I've concluded: nothing. The NCAA is going to offer nothing, because its schools have nothing to offer. Instead, college sports power brokers are going to make it seem like they're making concessions. Call it the Chris Rock "I take care of my kids!" approach to negotiation--if you can convince the other side that you're giving up something of value, even if it's something that you were going to give up anyway, then you're halfway to a quid pro quo.

How will this work, exactly? It's too early to say. But in the USA TODAY Sports article, former Congressional representative Moran--the man behind the proposed college sports presidential commission--offers a big hint:

... Moran said Saturday he has not been invited to next week's meeting, but that "I think (Obama) would be willing to establish some platform within the executive branch" to examine college sports.

"I think he can do it without asking Congress to make a heavy lift," Moran added. "I think he recognizes the import of this and the opportunity to make substantive reform with bipartisan support."

However, Moran said that getting the NCAA and its member schools to go along with the idea is critical.

"The NCAA has to buy into this," he said. "It's got to, or it's not going to work. (A commission) will not be able to impose a list of reforms without NCAA concurrence."

Moran also said that the prospect of granting some type of anti-trust protection to college sports "clearly has to be addressed. I don't think you can ignore that-in return for some reform. That has to be part of the discussion" ...

See that? Antitrust protection in exchange for "reform." What kind of reform? USA TODAY Sports notes that Duncan, the Education Secretary, has proposed that teams failing to meet certain graduation-rate benchmarks should be banned from postseason play. Others in Congress have called for better athlete concussion protections, guaranteed four-year scholarships, increased cost-of-living stipends, and eliminating athletic department involvement in campus sexual assault cases involving athletes.

In other words: a bunch of stuff that the NCAA and its member schools and conferences already should be doing, and/or are doing. A bunch of stuff that's less a series of concessions than Secret Santa-style re-gifting.

Look, White House, if you're going to even consider signing away athletes' basic economic rights, make sure you get something substantiative in exchange, and not just the college sports policy equivalent of an unopened waffle maker that was just sitting in NCAA President Mark Emmert's closet, anyway.

Remember Who Isn't In the Room

Do you know why current and former college athletes brought the O'Bannon lawsuit in the first place? Or why Northwestern University football players successfully petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to be considered school employees with the right to join a first-ever college athlete union? Or why other campus athletes are suing the NCAA for full free agency in federal court right now?

It's not because they love Law and Order reruns. It's because they have no other choice. No other voice, really. No way to be heard. The debate over college sports amateurism is often framed as a fight over money. It's actually a fight over power. Should schools have the power to collectively fix prices for athletic labor, a power that America seldom grants to other industries? Or should athletes have the power to sell their unique talents and services to the highest bidder, a power enjoyed by just about everyone else in society?

During the college football playoffs, CBS Sports' Solomon talked to more than 30 players. He asked a single question: "If you could change anything about the NCAA or college football, what would it be?"

According to Solomon, the overwhelming response was simple: Let players get some money.

"We put a lot of time and effort into what we do and the football program brings in a lot of money to the school," University of Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner told CBS Sports. "It's pretty much our job throughout college. We're up early, we go to bed late with meetings and practices. Coaches get a big bonus in their check. It would be cool to get a little piece of the earnings."

Back to your upcoming meeting. College sports executives and administrators reportedly will be there. The sort of people who get big bonuses in their checks. Conspicuously absent? Athlete advocates who also will be in Washington. And athletes themselves, whose only checks come from poverty-fighting federal Pell Grants. That's probably not a coincidence. So maybe your next meeting should involve Buckner and his peers. Perhaps you should even listen to what they have to say.