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Doug Robinson: The walls are closing in on the NCAA

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 6:46 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2010 file photo, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon Jr. sits in his office in Henderson, Nev. His landmark suit demanding college players get some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate every year could change the way big time college athletics are operated. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File) (Isaac Brekken, AP) FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2010 file photo, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon Jr. sits in his office in Henderson, Nev. His landmark suit demanding college players get some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate every year could change the way big time college athletics are operated. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File) (Isaac Brekken, AP)

The walls are closing in on the NCAA.

The Ed O’Bannon case got the green light from the courts.

So did the case brought by football players at Northwestern University.

Public opinion has turned on the NCAA empire, which is perceived as greedy, hypocritical, arbitrary, unfair, dictatorial — in other words, like Congress, only worse.

And the NCAA deserves all of it. It has no one to blame but itself.

The NCAA is all about the NCAA. NCAA officials are all about preserving and justifying their existence and turning profits. They have completely failed in their role as caretaker and overseer of college athletics and college athletes.

If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have arbitrary penalties with no due process. We wouldn’t have the NCAA punishing athletes for selling jerseys and autographs when the NCAA is doing the same thing. We wouldn’t have the National Collegiate Athletics Accountability Act introduced to Congress to improve the “health, safety and education” of student-athletes and to mandate due process for those accused of wrongdoing by the NCAA. We wouldn’t have the National College Players Association as an advocacy group for student-athletes. We wouldn’t have the NFL and NBA pillaging the college game for young players, robbing colleges of athletes and robbing athletes of a chance to complete their education.

We wouldn’t have the giant mess that is college football, where championships have been decided by polls and bowls for decades so the NCAA could protect its money-making machine and the good-ole boys network that drove it (the new four-team playoff is too little, too late and will still have blatant inequities and a favored class). We wouldn’t have the O’Bannon case, which seeks to stop the NCAA from using athletes’ images to make millions, while forbidding athletes from doing so themselves. We wouldn’t have the BCS and ESPN and the rest of them hijacking the game. We wouldn’t have Northwestern athletes trying to unionize. We wouldn’t have the NCAA making $3.2 billion in revenues and $1.3 billion in profits while forbidding athletes from accepting free pizza and washing their car with a university hose. We wouldn’t have the NCAA forcing athletes to reimburse $3.83 for a pasta meal because the pasta they ate was “in excess of the permissible amount allowed.”

We wouldn’t even have the term “student-athletes.”

If the pointy-headed people at the NCAA had any brains, they would have fixed the NCAA and corrected all of the above before someone does it for them, which is exactly what is going to happen. Instead, NCAA officials are fighting to the bitter end. They are still all about taking care of themselves.

The entire NCAA system is based on and justified by two flawed, self-serving and outdated terms — student-athlete and amateurism. The NCAA purports to be an advocate for athletes as students first, athletes second, which justifies amateurism; meanwhile, “student-athletes” spend more than 40 hours a week devoted to football, not to mention much of their summers, and the NCAA rakes in billions. The original use of the “student-athlete” term had no such pretensions. It was created for political and legal expediency and not for any of their purported high ideals.

In his aptly titled book, “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA,” author Taylor Branch writes that Walter Byers, director of the NCAA from 1951 to 1987, created the term in the 1950s in response to a lawsuit filed by the widow of a football player who died in Colorado from a head injury. She sued for death benefits through workman’s compensation. The NCAA contended he was a student, not an employee, and a football scholarship did not change that status. Football was merely an extracurricular activity, not a business; therefore, he didn't merit compensation. Byers coined the “student-athlete” term to bolster this argument. The term stuck forever and the courts ruled for the NCAA.

As Branch wrote so well, “Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority — indeed, much of the justification for its existence — is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the student-athlete. The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of 'student-athlete' lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its 'fight against workers’ compensation insurance claims for injured football players.'”

In what would now be seen as ironic, if not ludicrous, the Colorado Supreme Court wrote in 1957, “It is significant that the college did not receive a direct benefit from the activities, since the college was not in the football business and received no benefit from the field of recreation. In fact, the state-conducted institution, supported by taxpayers, could not as a matter of business enter into the maintenance of a football team for the purpose of making a profit directly or indirectly out of the taxpayers’ money.”

Now the NCAA and its member schools are in the football business to the tune of billions of dollars, using virtually free labor by promoting amateurism, which is more, self-justifying nonsense.

Amateurism has little basis in idealism. As Olympic author and historian David Wallechinsky describes it, amateurism developed in 19th-century England as a way for the aristocracy to avoid competing against the working class. The aristocracy had the means to devote time to training; the working class had to have jobs to earn a living, often working six days a week, so the only way they could compete in or train for sports was through prize money or sponsorship. The upper class pushed for amateurism as a means of segregation, but hid it behind idealism. In 2006, former Harvard dean Harry R. Lewis wrote in the Harvard Crimson, “The original British rules of 1868 had the now-familiar prohibitions against competing for pay or prize money. But just in case some member of the lower classes might become athletically expert while avoiding such rewards, the rules also bluntly excluded any “mechanic, artisan or labourer.”

It was elitism at its worst and yet somehow it persisted for a century. It made its way to America into golf, tennis and track and the old AAU, which ruined more sporting careers than knee injuries. It also became entrenched in the NCAA, which promotes amateurism with its “student-athlete” model so it can thrive in the big business of college football and basketball. That was hardly the purpose of higher education 60 years ago. College football and basketball are big business now and, like the AAU and IOC before them, the NCAA is facing big changes in how it uses athletes.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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