Imagine the Vatican issuing a statement that being gay doesn’t consign you to hell or Sarah Palin admitting that humans might have walked the earth for longer than 6,000 years. Last week, NCAA President Mark Emmert crossed a similar ideological bridge away from the antediluvian. Emmert said in an interview with USA Today that at April’s NCAA board meeting he “will make clear…that I want [paying players] to be a subject we explore.”
This comes on the heels of an interview on PBS’s Frontline special “Money and March Madness,” where a scarlet-faced, visibly agitated Emmert refused to reveal his own seven-figure salary on camera and insisted that it would “be utterly unacceptable…to convert students into employees.”
After Emmert revealed that he was “justice-curious,” the NCAA quickly issued a statement that this kind of “exploration” was consistent with previous statements. This strains belief. More accurately, just in time for the NCAA finals, it’s yet another indication that we seem to have reached a tipping point on whether NCAA basketball and football players should receive some form of compensation for the billions they generate.
A flurry of scandals in recent weeks has exposed the rot at the core of the NCAA’s sham amateurism. There’s the implosion of the Ohio State’s vaunted football program over several hundred dollars in tattoos and hair cuts in return for signed varsity jackets. While Buckeye stars like quarterback Terrelle Pryor sell their own clothes, their coach with a multimillion-dollar contract, Jim Tressel—who knew about the infractions and hid them from the NCAA—might skate with a self-imposed suspension. (When Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee was asked if he considered firing Tressel, he said, “No, are you kidding me? Let me be very clear. I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”)
There’s the scandal at the Fiesta Bowl, where now deposed CEO John Junker siphoned off millions of dollars—including $33,000 for his fiftieth birthday party in South Florida, four private golf club memberships and a $1,200 strip club invoice. There’s the multibillion-dollar orgy of March Madness money. There are the coaches in the Final Four, plying their trade under scandal’s shadow: Calhoun and Calipari. C and C Basketball Factory, both with eight-figure contracts—not including sneaker money. Then there are the video games, posters and boutique credit cards featuring images of your favorite amateur athletess. Then there’s the college sports media industry. ESPN’s announcers reportedly showed up to the Fiesta Bowl one week in advance, stayed at the finest resorts and every day received an expensive present courtesy of the Fiesta Bowl. As DC Sports Radio host Steve Czaban said, “It sounds like sports-media Chanukah.” And we haven’t even mentioned the multibillion-dollar gambling industry. March Madness is now a busier time in Vegas than the Super Bowl.