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.
We have reached a clear public exhaustion with the injustice of it all and the steady monotony of these scandals, each so clearly driven by the vast inequalities between today‘s All-Americans and those leeching off their labors. It’s time for a change. Former All-American and NBA star Jalen Rose offered a concrete proposal, writing, “[The] overwhelming time commitment of practice, film sessions and team obligations make it impossible to maintain a part-time job, which is not permitted. It’s difficult to juggle two full time jobs —going to school and playing athletics. A $2,000 per semester stipend would go a long way for giving the student athletes extra money to help pay bills and living expenses. “
I would add that every NCAA athlete—whether or not they’re in a revenue-producing sport—should have their scholarship guaranteed if they maintain their grades. In the current system, coaches renew scholarships on an annual basis. If you get hurt or don’t fit a coach’s system, you are yesterday’s news.
The arguments against issuing a stipend—or work-study—to scholarship athletes tend to wither at the slightest touch. It usually goes something like, “The players get free room and board and that should be enough.” Or, “It would ruin the ‘spirit’ and ‘love’ of the game if they were stripped of their amateur status.” As one author said in a speech, “To provide recompense would be to degrade [them] toward a spiral of barbarism. [In the current system] they are cared for and governed in a way that allows them to be supervised instead of being thrown to the wolves.”
Apologies. That last quote wasn’t from a defender of the current scholarship system, but from George Fitzhugh, the nineteenth-century Virginia writer whose defense of slavery, “Cannibals All or Slaves without Masters,” argued the moral benefits of well-supervised, bonded labor. This comparison to the old slave South is heard in the current system’s most prominent critics. Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987, who has now in retirement seen the light, said to the great sportswriter Steve Wulf, “The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neoplantation mentality on the campuses.”
The old justifications are sounding as antiquated and offensive as George Fitzhugh. Mark Emmert— protestations aside—seems to see that the writing is on the wall. We will see whether he truly has an interest in justice or is just “justice-curious.”