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The Only Difference Is We Can't Pretend Anymore
NCAA reform and Name, Image, and Likeness rights only means that the hidden reality is out in the open
You don’t need to be paying super close attention to notice that the world of college athletics is in turmoil. Record transfers! Administrative chaos! Accusations of tampering!
You’re hearing concerns expressed from influential media members:
Meanwhile, glance at any college athletics message board and you’ll probably find fans talking about how changes to the NCAA are impacting their fandom.
And it’s absolutely true that college sports, particularly revenue sports, are different now. The NCAA’s bungling response to every lawsuit filed against their cartel has led to this exact moment, with the most illegal of their regulations stripped away with nothing adequate to replace them with.
That leads us to a somewhat contradictory reality: a sport that now provides much more autonomy, power, and possible recompense to the stars of the show, while simultaneously alienating some percentage of the fans of those same stars. Players now have much more control over their own collegiate careers, and the freedom to profit off of those careers if they so desire . . . and yet fans are by-and-large upset at the direction of the sport.
The reasons these changes might alienate fans are varied. Frustration that players are changing teams at unprecedented rates. Perception that college sports is now pay-for-play. A feeling that the playing field is no longer level, and that parity is dead.
Until very recently, the casual fan could enjoy college sports with the vague sense that the sport was fair. Players typically stayed for at least 3 or 4 years, and thanks to the toothlessness of the NCAA, you had to really be tuned in to really be aware of how much a sham amateurism was. Sure, we all kinda assumed that, like, USC was probably cheating. But because the inequity across the sport was more subtle, you could enjoy the sport without worrying too much.
But it’s not hidden any more. If the Alabama - Ohio State - Clemson - Oklahoma - Georgia monopoly wasn’t enough, blatant over-the-table payment for players didn’t help. Never mind that college football was never a sport with much, if any, parity. Never mind that the rich teams always got the best players, whether through direct means (drop that bag!) or indirect (gimme some awesome uniforms and facilities Uncle Phil!). Before, recruits were paid for with amenities (but also under the table cash). Now we’re just
In short, we can’t pretend any more. Sure, the sport isn’t functionally any different. The specific mechanisms of inequality have changed, but the larger structure is no different. We were allowed to be naïve for years, and now it’s too obvious. Living in ignorance is impossible.
And because it’s all just so obvious now, the sport is trying to take laughably belated action. Nicole Auerbach with The Athletic detailed a variety of reforms the NCAA is considering, including:
A window of dates in which an athlete can transfer without penalty
Elimination of personnel limitations (i.e. coaches)
Infraction enforcement reform
Reforms to conference championship game rules
Changes to limits on how many scholarships football coaches can offer in a single season
Meanwhile, the NCAA is trying to figure out how to rein in NIL spending that’s really just booster spending to recruit and retain players. There’s one big problem with the attempt: the whole “everything we want to do is probably illegal” thing:
. . . lawyers and agents involved in the types of NIL deals of concern to administrators, few believed the NCAA has the capacity to curb the budding “over the table” pay-for-play market. Not after Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion in last summer’s NCAA v. Alston antitrust decision that warned: “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”
If the NCAA had taken reform actions years ago, maybe they could have instituted a system that might have survived in the courts. But now that their entire model has been thrown out, trying to take back some semblance of control just doesn’t seem likely to succeed.
This section in particular cracked me up, and reveals how chaotic and mismanaged the NCAA is right now:
Multiple sources said that NCAA vice president of enforcement Jon Duncan had previously told administrators that he was waiting for clearer direction from membership before chasing down athletes, schools and boosters to establish proof that violations were being made. This frustrated some high-ranking officials, who had expected the NCAA’s enforcement staff to jump into the fray far earlier . . .
“Are you going to enforce the rules?”
”What are the rules you want me to enforce?”
”Nobody knows, but you need to enforce them!”
In short, we’re in a period of chaos that shows no signs of ending. Maybe, over the next few years, the NCAA manages to put in place some kind of organizing framework that passes legal muster. Maybe this ends with college athletes unionizing in some fashion and negotiating their own working conditions to establish order across the sport. Maybe the NCAA splinters further apart, with the de facto split between haves and have nots turning into a literal split.
And the hell if I know how this is going to work out. If you forced me to guess, I’d speculate that college sports will trundle on like they always have: with plenty of chaos and a typically unequal playing field, but with more than enough rewards to keep fans coming back. After all, while NIL rights matter both in principle and in practice, they aren’t the end-all be-all. I doubt that Cal has an organized network of boosters splashing the cash but that hasn’t stopped Justin Wilcox from bringing on two sought after transfers.
Recruits will continue to pick schools for all of the same reasons: chances of winning and compensation . . . but also the chance to play close to home, or to maximize their educational goals. The same big schools will win most of the games, but we’ll all thrill over the handful of games that they inevitably don’t win just as much as we always have.
In short: college sports will continue to be as powerfully dumb off the field as they continue to be powerfully entertaining on the field.