Talking NCAA on Meet the Press

Still nursing a nasty cold…

Dave Zirin was all over yesterday’s Meet the Press. In the show’s final segment, host David Gregory had on NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert, former Duke player and former presidential “body man” Reggie Love and Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, a former Harvard basketball player.

Gregory put some of the hot-button issues on the table, including the question of paying college athletes (he cited a recent poll in which two thirds of Americans oppose the idea); unionization; the large sums of money the NCAA is making, as well as the increasingly exorbitant salaries of coaches; and some of the bizarre quirks of the enterprise including, apparently, the fact that on off days during NCAA tournaments, players’ meals aren’t covered.

Emmert said exactly what you’d expect him to say – the players are not employees; they’re students first and our goal should be to ensure that they are set up for lifetime of success by the educations they do receive. He dodged the question, when it was raised, about how the NCAA and member schools profit off of jersey sales and video games and marketing the product to kids while shutting the players out. And he again expressed support for an additional stipend that would bring the scholarship in line with the full cost of attendance.

Duncan insisted that the enterprise needed to prioritize education – to punish schools that don’t graduate their players and tie coaches’ pay to academic achievement more than athletic achievement. While Emmert voiced repeated and strong support for such statements, no one need take them seriously. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that the NCAA and its member schools are going to prioritize educational benchmarks over athletic success in this way. To take such claims at face value is – dated reference alert! – kind of like believing the typical heterosexual male who tells you he’s more interested in Playboy for the interviews than the centerfold.

More specifically, the likelihood that the power five conferences – already contemplating going their own way –  are seriously going to incentivize coaches to ensure success in the classroom even at the expense of success on the field is approximately zero. Duncan is, of course, a big believer in quantitative goals as carrots and sticks to induce better educational outcomes. The most ambitious such effort in the United States appears to have been a disastrous failure.
And there’s no obvious argument that a similar approach would work to transform college athletics. The incentives are too clear and unshakeable.

Step one in a more honest accounting is to stop lumping all collegiate athletic endeavors together – collegiate golf and big-time college football share nothing meaningful in common except a campus. Step two is to admit the blindingly obvious – that at the top football and basketball schools, players are not brought to campus primarily to receive an education. Acknowledging this reality might actually open the door to a better educational experience for the players involved, one not sullied by the current pretenses of the system, with a focus on eligibility rather than real, achievable educational goals. Unionization could actually facilitate this – a collectively bargained agreement between players and school administrators might lead to a more realistic and serious effort to figure out how to deliver to players a good education, while allowing them to better balance their classroom time and practice time.



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