The Death Twitches of the NCAA

Our least favorite free labor infringement can't help but go out in embarrassing fashion

As a fan, boy was it a joy to have the NCAA tournament back in our lives. The men’s tournament saw an upset-filled first two rounds give way to an absurd performance from Pac-12 teams, and the women’s tournament saw blockbuster ratings thanks to a high level of play in 2nd and 3rd week games from the best programs in the sport.

It might also be the last tournament under the NCAA as we know it.

The NCAA was already halfway across the River Styx before the COVID-19 pandemic, assaulted on all sides by lawsuits and legislation intended to chip away at amateurism. But it sure does feel like the pandemic helped lay bare the inherent hypocrisy of the NCAA in every way.

“The marketing of the men’s tournament is so gross!” many say, as they watch players encouraged to wear dumb branded t-shirts in front of gratuitous sports drink marquees as they’re bombarded with ads following a season ripe with isolation, grim working conditions, and COVID game cancellations. And it’s gross because the money the NCAA makes isn’t distributed to the people actually earning the money.

But that’s not the point, says a hypothetical NCAA lawyer. The point of this is education and equal access. We’re just trying to make enough money to pay for upkeep and scholarships, please pay no attention to the millions of dollars we pay coaches and redundant administrators.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles southwest down in San Antonio, the WBB tournament received . . . less than what the men’s tournament has been provided. It’s been one unforced error after another, splashed across social media because the coaches and players in the women’s game are fed up with getting less than their male counterparts.

So which is it, NCAA? Are the men’s players denied access to the billions in revenue they generate because the NCAA is striving to create an equal playing field focused on academic achievement? Or are the women’s players denied equal treatment because it’s the men who make all the revenue?

The answer, of course, is neither and both depending on the audience and the needs of the NCAA in any given moment. And let’s not pretend that the women aren’t leaving substantial money on the table because they are denied name-and-image rights just like the men:

Of course, all of this is merely more individual pieces of evidence that the NCAA is incompetent in addition to unfair. And something much more important than crummy weight rooms and uneven swag bags is happening - a supreme court hearing:

The Supreme Court heard more than 90 minutes of oral arguments Wednesday morning in the NCAA v. Alston case, the first time the nation's highest court has weighed in on the business of college sports in nearly four decades. The question in front of the court is whether the NCAA deserves special relief from normal antitrust rules in order to protect its educational mission and preserve a tradition of amateurism in college sports. The court is expected to make a ruling sometime in late spring or early summer.

When Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan are both making statements during oral arguments questioning the very basis of your organization . . .

. . . you might be super-mondo-screwed.

At this point, the death of amateurism and the irrelevancy of the NCAA is functionally in place already and will inevitably be in place officially.

The NCAA is functionally irrelevant right now because member institutions have realized that they can avoid meaningful punishment for rule violations by stonewalling NCAA investigations. The NCAA will be officially irrelevant in a matter of years (if not months!) because either the Supreme Court or state and/or federal legislation will mandate the end of amateurism. Really, the only question is: what comes next? Will there be chaos and confusion, or an orderly transition to name-and-image-likeness rights for athletes and perhaps some form of direct payment for revenue generated? Will the NCAA be able to maintain its legitimacy as an organizing entity with an ability to enforce rules, whatever those rules end up being?

I have no clue. Our Brave New World is almost here.