Jacobs: NCAA Creeps Toward Change

For those who waited anxiously for the wave of discontent to crest, for protests against unfairness to create a crescendo for change, the intense national coverage of last week’s NCAA convention in San Diego provided a gratifying resolution to issues that for years, decades, a century, have plagued college sports.

OK, maybe not.

Most of us probably saw scant mention of the NCAA’s big national confab on-line, on the air, or in print. Really, if you were interested in issues such as the possible restructuring of collegiate athletics to allow more autonomy for the major conferences, including more money for so-called student-athletes, you were hard-pressed to find news of the debate.

Just last summer, pointed rumblings of dissatisfaction emanated from commissioners of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. Challenges to the legitimacy of their beloved amateur model were coming from all directions. This pressure, largely external, gave rise to talk of creating a fourth division for the big boys or perhaps their leaving the NCAA entirely.

Heated commentary followed, much of it coming from those who regard the NCAA as the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, a paramilitary organization, and the DMV rolled into one. For them, the prospect of highlighting the contradictions within college sports was a prospect to be savored.

But the power conference commissioners backed off their secessionist hints. They spoke instead of staying under “the big tent” with the little guys they like to beat up in football to make sure their football teams get to 6-6 and go to a bowl.

Sure enough, nothing close to overt change came to pass at the convention despite the promise from Mark Emmert, the unpopular NCAA president, that the national gathering would mark “an important milestone” in transforming the organization.

Reaction from many of the 850 attendees at a Jan. 16 “NCAA Division I Governance Dialogue” was reportedly as much exasperated as exhilarated.

Perhaps the biggest news was that, according to Brad Wolverton in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “in a room where nearly half of the people represented the wealthiest 11 leagues” (of 35 multi-sport conferences), more than half informally ratified the idea of more independence for the big boys. As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”.

Nothing will be decided until the spring, or possibly the fall.

A discussion of “core values” should lead with graduation of athletes, one delegate complained. Connecticut’s AD noted an emphasis on generating revenue should be part of the core values governing the organization.

A glaring lack of student participation in the governance structure was highlighted – and met with the usual assurances that the discussion was just beginning.

Among the conference’s most quoted comments came from N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow. Repeating a theme that has gained wide currency lately, she argued for more clout for herself and her colleagues, who turned out in large numbers and loudly applauded her remarks.

“There is only one group that 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is devoted to this enterprise, and we should be included in the leadership,” Yow said.

Meanwhile, an Internet search for more information led to an L.A. Times story on the  convention with a link at the bottom of the page to a site called Jabari Shirts.

Created by a self-professed Duke fan, the site featured three basic white T-shirts at $14.95 each in styles called “Nothing but Net Jabari Parker,” “Slam Dunk it Jabari Parker,” and “I Heart Jabari Parker.”

The person running Jabari Shirts, who hung up when asked to spell his name, insisted the Duke player was not involved. “I’m just selling them myself and the money just goes to me,” he said.

Presumably that demurral was meant to be comforting. Of course, having others generate revenue by selling merchandise that capitalizes on the reputation and achievements of college athletes is at the heart of the O’Bannon lawsuit that threatens the NCAA’s amateurism model. The practice is unjust on the face of it, considering that athletes forfeit eligibility if they receive any of the revenue from such sales.

(By the way, Duke University stores features a much fancier No. 1 basketball jersey on its Web site. That is Parker’s jersey numeral, although his name is absent from the Nike replica, which sells for $119.00.)

N.C. State’s Yow, a strong proponent of power conference prerogatives, has long advocated allowing income from jersey sales and other player paraphrenalia to flow to escrow accounts for athletes.

“Would you have students acting differently in order to try to best assure that their jersey is the one that’s sold?” she asks rhetorically, one of many arguments raised in opposition to the notion. “So it is not without its own drawbacks, but I believe on balance it is the right thing to do.”

That, and scores of other balancing acts, are at the heart of the difficulties that flummox NCAA decision-makers, issues left largely unresolved by the latest NCAA convention.

The best chance for change is a profound external stimulus, observes critic Charles Clotfelter, Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics and Law at Duke and author of the 2011 book, Big-Time Sports in American Universities. “I don’t think that’s likely, but that’s the magnitude,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “It needs to be something like an asteroid to get these dinosaurs.”