The improbable, last-second victory of underdog North Carolina State over the University of Houston in the 1983 title game helped make the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament a cultural phenomenon. CBS and the NCAA would market the ensuing moments for decades. State’s coach, Jim Valvano, raced around the court looking for someone to embrace, while the Houston players, including two future NBA Hall of Famers, appeared stunned and disoriented. Those were the prelapsarian days. College athletes still seemed young, the emotions of the game innocent.
Forty years later, for better and for worse, “March Madness” is a smooth corporate product that commands billions of dollars in rights fees from broadcasters. Valvano was a charming rogue, few of whose players got degrees; since then, with schools under greater public scrutiny and encouraged by competitive incentives, graduation rates have risen steadily across college sports. Paradoxically, though, the strain on NCAA member institutions has only increased, as the connection between the schools’ educational missions and the entertainment product by which they are increasingly known to the public has weakened. For college presidents at many large institutions, it’s veritas, bonitas, pulcritudo, on the one hand, and the bombast of ESPN College GameDay, on the other.
Football puts even more pressure on the gate than basketball; the rosters and stadiums are larger, the money greater, the passions and rivalries more distorting. Charged with managing these tensions and promoting public goodwill, the NCAA has largely failed to act. College sports remain enormously popular, but the business of college sports is uniformly regarded with cynicism.
The 12-year tenure of the widely reviled NCAA president, Mark Emmert, ended recently with his retirement. In his place, the NCAA board of governors appointed former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, who assumed his role on March 1. Baker faces enormous challenges and a divided membership, and he will need the cooperation of a hostile Congress to enact reform. Nonetheless, there may finally be reason for optimism. A former Republican governor in a deep-blue state, a moderate in an immoderate political era, Baker has experience tilting at windmills and a record of patient accomplishment. Fans of college athletics should be rooting for him. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Baker must convince his member institutions to put some regulations in place around athletes’ exercise of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights. Emmert promised to do this but never made any progress, in part because of uncertainty about what rules the NCAA can legally enforce following the Supreme Court’s decision in Alston v. NCAA, which struck down on antitrust grounds NCAA regulations on the non-scholarship benefits that could be provided to athletes. NIL has made a few young players rich and provided significant stipends for many more. It has also empowered the most unscrupulous operators in college sports and brought embarrassment to some institutions. Whatever protections Baker has in mind—including perhaps an NCAA-operated clearinghouse to bring more transparency to the NIL market—he likely will need an antitrust exemption from Congress.
Antitrust doctrine is not the only legal obstacle facing the leaders of college sports. The National Labor Relations Board has suggested that college athletes should be classified as employees under federal labor law. This would give them the right to bargain collectively, which, in turn, would probably mean that some schools would make direct salary payments to athletes. The NCAA has always regarded this as an existential threat—the end of its founding amateur model—and Baker has said that he agrees. (I have made several ambivalent defenses of the amateur model.) This is another lobbying fight that Baker absolutely must win, and he’ll be advocating on behalf of one of the most unpopular institutions in American public life.
Baker probably can’t stop continued conference realignment, which is driven by nine- and ten-figure licensing fees dangled by the television networks. What he must prevent is the formation of a breakaway, network-sponsored football super-conference that would take the bulk of the annual revenues from all college sports with it. Baker says he thinks that the current NCAA governance model is viable, but at some point, the Alabamas and USCs of the world might decide that they don’t want to be under the same “big tent” as Antioch College and Wesleyan or let their football programs be governed by the same principles that direct such non-revenue sports as fencing and volleyball.
College sports are unrecognizable from what they were even a decade ago. For the most gifted football and basketball players, there have never been more opportunities. For everyone else, the mercenary ethos works less well. Coaches now openly cut scholarship players who are not contributing on the field—a practice once disfavored—because who owes anyone anything, when the transfer rules allow those same players to leave without penalty for a more attractive opportunity? This year, as Florida Atlantic University made an unlikely run through March Madness, the team’s coach noted that other programs were courting his players even as they prepared for the Final Four. He wasn’t shocked; he wasn’t even especially resentful. After all, IBM must poach engineers from its competitors all the time.
Party affiliation and ideology are not necessarily reliable indicators of how any of us is likely to feel about college sports or the NCAA. Conservatives and classical liberals may be inclined to believe that college athletes, like everyone else, should get paid what the market says they’re worth. They are also sensitive to history and tradition and the educational mission of universities, to which the professionalization of college sports is a threat. Progressives like the opportunities that athletic scholarships provide for minorities and first-generation college students, but they hate the broadcast networks and the martial pretensions of college football coaches.
Starting over from today, we probably wouldn’t put colleges and universities in the sports entertainment business at all. Still, many of us would be reluctant to sever the communal ties that college sports promote. When 80,000 people gather in a Big Ten stadium on a fall Saturday, you pass a beer and a bratwurst to your neighbor, regardless of whom he voted for. Even as he guides the NCAA through complex legal and political challenges, Baker needs to preserve this essential spirit.
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