The day there is substantial news from one of the people or organizations committed to reforming the NCAA always seems like a red letter day for the reforms and a black letter day for the NCAA. If that is the case, Monday was doubly so, as the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics questioned President Emmert at a meeting in Washington D.C. and the National Collegiate Players’ Association announced it had gathered 300 signatures on a petition for a very specific change to the NCAA in a pilot program.
Except days like this highlight the biggest obstacles for NCAA reformers: other reformers.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has, since 1989, pursued the mission of “ensuring that intercollegiate athletics programs operate within the educational mission of their colleges and universities.” The most recent report from the Knight Commission asks for transparent financial statements, greater focus on academics, and reducing commercialism. In the view of the Knight Commission, the continuum of ideas about college athletics looks like this:
Knight Commission <—————————> NCAA
The National Collegiate Players’ Association has, since 2001, pursued a mission of “providing the means for college athletes to voice their concerns and change NCAA rules.” The NCPA’s most recent study on cost of attendance and athletic scholarships recommended that new TV revenue flow to athletes, scholarship commitments be increased, and athletes be allowed to explore commercial opportunities. In the view of the NCPA, the continuum of ideas about college athletics looks like this:
NCPA <—————————> NCAA
But in the view of the NCAA, a view that is closer to reality, the situation really looks like this:
NCPA <———— NCAA ————> Knight Commission
The NCAA sits in between those pushing for a more professional college sports environment and those yearning for a deemphasis on competition and greater focus on academics. The two sides cannot see each other, cannot collaborate with each other, and cannot debate each other. The NCAA ends up standing in as the advocate for both sides as often as it is their opponent.
If reform is presented as a competition, battle, or zero-sum game, any victory will be a fleeting one. Once someone “beats” the NCAA (whatever that means), they have to contend with another opponent, who not only wants to unwind all the recent victories, but go even further in the opposite direction than the NCAA ever did. Not to mention this new foe will be motivated by seeing, in their eyes, an even worse version of college athletics than before.
There is a persistent myth in college athletics that it can be “fixed”. That there are some set of reforms which once enacted will solve every problem forever. This myth is embodied in the claims that major reforms to bedrock NCAA principles are uncontroversial tweaks and that only two rules or ten commandments are need to keep college athletics in line.
It is far more likely that we are entering an extended period of upheaval and change, which historically last for around 20 years in the NCAA. The first, the rise of intercollegiate athletics itself, created the NCAA. The second surrounded the academic scandals and point-shaving of the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in a dramatic showdown over the Sanity Code. And more recently the 1970s and ’80s were consumed by which initial eligibility standard to use, who would govern women’s athletics, and how to clean up rampant cheating. College athletics runs in 15–20 years cycles of change and stability. It would be noteworthy if intense debate had not come up now or in the near future.
The major difference in the current cycle is the relative influence of outside factors, including would-be reformers. The NCAA has shown that, like an extended family, it can fight amongst itself and come out stronger on the other side. Surviving a twenty-year tug of war between different vision of college athletics is something altogether different.
The better model is that the NCAA, proponents of professional college athletics, and members of the academy (roughly the three big groups) be the three legs of a stool rather than three points along a line. Without one the other two fall over, and balance is always a little tricky. And all three are connected by a single purpose. Issues like realignment, budget disparities, and student-athlete welfare are not going away anytime soon. No sense in seeking an imaginary victory in a fight that can never be won.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.