The NCAA makes billions. The conferences and the colleges make billions. The coaches make millions. The agents make millions.
The players producing all this money? They get squat, and their eligibility is in danger if they – or their mother – gets so much as a meal at Longhorn Steakhouse.
So who really comes out looking bad in the Yahoo report Friday giving a glimpse into money flowing under the table to college basketball players throughout the country? The players who received relatively tiny rewards? Or the NCAA and the college sports industrial complex, which has ridden those players for decades?
None of the Yahoo report is particularly surprising. Yet it seemed to surprise NCAA President Mark Emmert:
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“These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America,” Emmert said. “Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”
Or, as commentator Jay Bilas put it, how dare anyone exploit our players before we, the NCAA, are done doing so?
To be sure, the dozens of players named in the leaked FBI documents knew the NCAA rules banning their accepting “impermissible benefits” and all or most of them knew they were breaking them. Even so, the documents primarily spotlight the flaws in the system and in the NCAA’s rules more than the players’ wrongdoing.
The report shook the college sports world Friday and its timing couldn’t be worse, with the lucrative men’s basketball tournament tipping off in just a few weeks. But if this jars the NCAA and other leaders into taking a hard look at their fundamentally flawed system, then it’s a welcome development.
The NCAA has been running a lucrative scheme for decades now. Teenage superstars act as free labor and generate, these days, billions of dollars for everyone but themselves. True, they are offered college scholarships. But the athletic-academic scandal at UNC revealed what a joke that can be, and how the NCAA is content to look the other way when college athletes are mistreated.
Because it’s not about the player. It’s about what he can do for the college, for the conference, for the NCAA’s bottom line. That exploitation is done above the table for all to see. It’s only when it’s done by an agent, under the table, that the NCAA thinks the exploitation is a problem.
The current FBI investigation that led to Friday’s revelations should prompt an overdue, clear-eyed assessment of all that is broken in college basketball – and football. The NCAA needs to reassess all its rules and scrap those that hurt student-athletes. The details will be complicated, but athletes responsible for generating massive revenue need to be compensated in some way, beyond their scholarships. Instead they are targets of a federal probe while the real beneficiaries – the NCAA and its member schools – sit back and count their dough.