Bilas goes off on NCAA “amateurism”

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One thing that’s changed quite a bit over the past couple of years, it seems to me, is the casual way in which sports commentators now seem to revel in NCAA-bashing. Perhaps it was this epic article from 2011, by the Pulitzer prize winning historian Taylor Branch, which excoriated the hypocrisy of the NCAA and went viral. Maybe it’s the general fecklessness of the current president, Dr. Mark Emmert. Or maybe it’s that the member schools are now making so much money that the notion of college sports as an educationally driven amateur endeavor just seems absurd.

In any event, the conversation about college sports at places like ESPN – which, of course, has an enormous financial interest in the enterprise – is changing rapidly. And these days, no one with a large platform has been as vigorous a critic of the hypocrisy of the NCAA and its member schools’ insistence on amateurism as Jay Bilas.

Fresh off his highly publicized expose of the NCAA’s (now disabled) merchandising portal – where despite claims to the contrary, it was possible to search for names of individual players and buy their jerseys – Bilas appeared on ESPN’s Outside the Lines yesterday. With him were University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne, sports business reporter Darren Rovell and ESPN writer Wright Thompson.

The segment began with a clip of Emmert admitting that some might see it as hypocritical that the NCAA would be associated with a merchandising website that sells jerseys of individual players (as opposed to generic team jerseys) and promised that they would cease doing so immediately. Bilas was unimpressed. He described the NCAA’s ongoing  “shell games,” since the member institutions will keep selling jerseys and the NCAA is always saying that the NCAA *is* its member institutions.

Rovell noted that there are explicit conversations every year between Nike, Adidas and the member schools six months before the football and basketball seasons start, which determine which jerseys are most likely to sell – to wit, the numbers of the most popular current players. In other words, everyone understands that the schools are selling individual player jerseys, even if the players’ names aren’t on them.

Bilas spent the better part of the 20-minute segment thundering away, especially offended by the proposition that the free market somehow works for everyone except college athletes.

For example, he said: “Everybody gets paid out at market rates except the athletes. I can think of no other business in which one class, and one class only, of revenue drivers, is shut out completely.”

And in response to Byrne’s absurd comment that “the thing that never gets spoken about is there is a real value to the scholarship” – Greg, it gets said all the time – Bilas pounced. He pointed out that while “the schools act like the scholarship is this benevolent gift that’s being bestowed upon them….,” the purpose of these “gifts” is to help the schools win game.

Further, Bilas asserted that coaches and ADs also benefit from some of the things Byrne pointed to, like travel, facilities and so on. Bilas, continued, “everybody gets paid their market value, except the players. Nobody says to a coach, you get to work on your skills, you’ll get to use these great facilities, you’ll get to work on your craft and maybe someday you’ll get to coach in the NFL or NBA so maybe you should be restricted to expenses only.”

Finally, after Byrne and Rovell both said that changing the structure to allow payment to players would could have dire consequences for collegiate athletics, Bilas responded: “it would not be chaos or the wild, wild west. You can’t tell me that we have a system that teeters on the athletes remaining penniless…” He continued: “It’s really kind of absurd when you think about it that the free market works for everybody else except for the athletes….Every time we talk about this, we seem to go toward Armageddon, or the doomsday scenario.” But Bilas reminded everyone, “we have a situation now in which professional baseball players who’ve received large bonuses are still playing college basketball and football and “no one says a word.” The sky would not fall if players started earning some money from jersey sales.

More to say, of course. This will be one of the defining debates in sports over the next five years. But it’s noteworthy that such a high profile guy – and an insider – is becoming such a vigorous critic of a major sporting enterprise.

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