National Opinions

NCAA losing its battle against realities of free market

Joe Nocera, New York Times columnist
Joe Nocera, New York Times columnist

Too little, too late.

On Thursday, the 18 members of the NCAA's Division I board of directors voted 16-2 to allow the five richest conferences to play by their own rules, at least a little bit. Those who have been advocating this "reform" — especially the athletic directors and conference commissioners of the Big 5 conferences — have talked endlessly about how it is all about giving the athletes a better deal.

If only. The new Division I plan would give players some help they haven't had before. The schools would be able to offer their athletes a small stipend so their athletic scholarships would cover the full cost of attendance.

They could pass rules giving their athletes better medical insurance. The players could gain the ability to hire agents while they are still playing college ball.

But these changes hardly constitute wholesale reform. Rather, the big conferences thought they were doing the minimum they could get away with to make their problems go away, even as lawsuits have been bearing down on them, a union drive has taken place among Northwestern University football players, and critics have given full-throated voice to the enormous inequities in big-time college football and men's basketball.

As it turns out, it didn't work. On Friday, in California, Judge Claudia Wilken, who presided over the so-called O'Bannon case in June, ruled that, by limiting the amount of scholarship money the players could get, the NCAA was in violation of the nation's antitrust laws. She ruled that not only should players get the full cost of attendance, but that trust funds should be set up that could contain $5,000 a year. That may not sound like much, but according to the plaintiffs' lawyers, it could add up to some $300 million.

On the sports website Deadspin, economist Andy Schwarz shrewdly noted that there are distinct schools of NCAA critics: Team Reform and Team Market.

Team Reform consists of those who believe that college sports are not reflective of the values of higher education. They want to put the genie back in the bottle.

Team Market believes that there's nothing all that wrong with commercialized college sports so long as the value goes to the value creators.

The NCAA and the big-time college sports establishment have long been terrified of Team Market, which has the potential to truly change the nature of college sports. The O'Bannon case is only the first lawsuit to go to trial; there are other antitrust lawsuits coming down the pike that could force even bigger changes.

I know there are those who complain that all these changes will allow the rich in college sports to become richer, at the expense of all the other schools in Division I. To which I say: so what.

I think that could potentially be a good thing. If you separate off the 65 schools in the Big 5 conferences - plus a few others like Boise State in football and the University of Connecticut in basketball — and allow their athletic departments to become ever richer and more powerful, they will be more easily seen for what they are: a form of professionalized and commercialized entertainment that has very little to do with higher education.

They are the ones that can afford to put money in trust for players — and that is what is likely to happen.

At the same time, the also-ran schools may be forced to rethink athletics entirely. Unable to pay their players, perhaps they'll decide that the better part of valor is to de-emphasize sports and make them truly collegiate activities rather than part of a multibillion dollar entertainment complex.