NCAA conflicted from the start

Commercialism and Amateurism an incompatible team of priorities

December 10, 2012 

  • At issue | Nov. 25 commentary by syndicated columnist Joe Nocera, "Latest blow to NCAA's integrity also raises concerns of racial bias"

The NCAA is the organization that college sports fans love to hate. In the latest example, Joe Nocera writes that charges of racial bias are yet another "blow to the NCAA's integrity."

Add to this the criticisms that the NCAA has been "arrogant," "arbitrary" and "autocratic" in its penalties levied against some athletics programs. Its commercial success has led to its characterization as a "cartel" and "monopoly" that is "hypocritical" in its conduct of college sports.

Given all this outrage, one wonders, "How did the NCAA get this way?" The answer is that this happened 60 years ago when college sports were mired in scandals that dominated newspaper headlines and even befuddled Congress. By accident and luck, the NCAA was selected to be the regulator of intercollegiate athletics.

The NCAA was an unlikely candidate for this role. In 1951, it was a small organization housed in a single suite of a Chicago office building. Its main work was to promote selected sports. Its premier event, the NCAA college basketball championships, had to share prestige and publicity with the National Invitational Tournament. In 1948, the director of the NCAA persuaded college presidents and athletic directors to adopt a code of conduct for student-athletes and financial aid, but the ensuing resistance to and ridicule of the regulations prompted the NCAA to retreat from developing or enforcing national standards.

College sports literally were out of control after World War II. Zealous alumni and booster clubs made payments to recruit outstanding high school athletes. Conference commissioners had either little power or desire to curb the most flagrant abuses of commercialism and recruiting. The commissioner of the Pacific Coast Conference was unusual because he was vigilant in documenting "slush funds" and placed four programs on probation, making them ineligible for the famous — and lucrative — Rose Bowl. His reward for a job well done was that he was fired and the conference was dissolved. Many university presidents turned a deaf ear to reform as they encouraged their ambitious coaches to build winning teams that attracted large crowds and statewide adulation.

The abuses in college sports were so alarming that Congress was asked to create a federal regulatory agency. Since Congress was reluctant to intervene in higher education on any issue, it first sought to have academic leaders oversee sports reform and urged colleges to lead the way through the national organization of presidents, the American Council on Education, or ACE.

During 1951-52, ACE deliberations stalled, as some presidents squabbled with athletics directors and coaches over what the place of intercollegiate athletics should be. Disagreements within the ranks of university presidents about the balance of academics and athletics reached a stalemate.

Desperate to end the impasse, Congress gave up on the ACE and asked the NCAA to be the regulatory body. Even though football was the dominant spectator sport, it was basketball that provided the crucial test case for the NCAA's new watchdog mandate. The University of Kentucky was center court along with City College of New York, Bradley University and Long Island University due to charges that some players were involved in the point-shaving scandal at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The NCAA prohibited any member institution from playing against UK, prompting UK to cancel its 1952-53 varsity schedule. This sent a message nationwide to athletic directors, coaches and presidents that the NCAA had the necessary strength to make (or break) high-profile programs. When it comes to the broad powers enjoyed by the NCAA today, it's important to note that without UK there would be no NCAA.

Beyond regulations and penalties, there was another overlooked part of the NCAA's eventual stature: It was able to become a commercial success because its member institutions granted it control over televising college games. Colleges had readily turned over television authority to the NCAA in 1948 in hopes that the NCAA's restrictions on live broadcasts would erase the threat that potential ticket buyers would stay away from football stadiums in favor of watching games on TV. That transfer of power was not seen as controversial or conflicted in 1950.

By 1960, however, when college football enjoyed both record-setting ticket sales and television broadcast revenue, the NCAA had consolidated its authority and profitability.

Hard to imagine today that as late as 1980, the NCAA had the authority to restrict televising college football to a total of eight games per weekend — further confined to a formula of two games in each of four regions. It could do this because the NCAA had acquired the power to punish and to promote programs.

The conflicting priorities of commercialism and amateurism in college sports were joined. But an important reminder is that the NCAA is a voluntary association. A college has the right to leave and form new cooperative alliances in tune with its own academic and athletic values.

John Thelin is professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is author of Games Colleges Play, a history of college sports scandals, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Email him at jthelin@uky.edu.

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