What is the purpose of the NCAA?

Charles Pierce, with his usual gusto, puts the UNC debacle in the context of the broader problem with big-time college athletics:

Colleges have no business being vehicles for mass entertainment any more than they have business selling widgets or maintaining a fishing fleet. It is no proper part of a university’s mission to provide quality television programming and year-round gambling opportunities for the rest of the country. That this has become the norm in America’s system of higher education is a monstrous accident of history and of academic neglect, but there it is, and it is not going anywhere, and the only way to do it is simply to make an honest business out of it. This is the direction toward which events seem to be pushing the industry at the moment. There’s a kind of blessed relief in that, because the screams of outrage and betrayal never quite drown out the faint echoes of the hoofbeats of horses long ago let out of the barn.

It was a surprise to hear David Glenn, midday sports host on Raleigh’s 99.9 The Fan argue yesterday that it was “ignorant” to assert that the NCAA had a primary responsibility to ensure the academic integrity of its member institutions. Glenn is a generally exceptionally well-informed commentator, particularly on college athletics and even more particularly on how ACC schools fare in applying academic standards to athletes’ admissions. And yet there he was arguing that anyone who argued that the NCAA had to bring the hammer down on UNC following the Wainstein revelations had “no idea what they were talking about.”

Glenn was correct to say that among the NCAA’s primary concerns is hosting inter-collegiate championships and coordinating the execution of inter-collegiate athletics more generally. But it simply cannot be denied what the NCAA itself claims is its raison d’etre. Among its central purposes, as its representatives stated repeatedly at the O’Bannon trial earlier this year, is to ensure the integration of academics and athletics. Indeed, its assertion that it is promoting an “amateur” enterprise, the basis of its tax-exempt, non-profit status, is that its mission is fundamentally an educational one. In that context, “academic integrity” is, according to the NCAA itself, a core mandate.

Furthermore, in the National Labor Relations Board hearing this spring that led to a ruling that football players at Northwestern are employees under US labor law, the university, with the backing of the NCAA, adamantly disagreed, on the grounds that “student-athletes” are simply and indisputably students first.

Indeed, and perhaps most fundamentally, the NCAA *requires* that athletes meet certain academic standards before they are even allowed on the field. Those standards include status as full-time students in any semester in which athletes compete, good enough grades to remain academically eligible and measurable progress toward completion of a degree.

You may well think this is all a farce. I might well agree. But that’s not really relevant to what the NCAA might or should do in the case of UNC. The NCAA *claims* that the education of its student-athletes is of primary importance. It also insists that intercollegiate athletics themselves are vital insofar as they advance the participants’ educational interests. As long as the NCAA says this it what they are about, they are going to face pressure to investigate seriously and sanction meaningfully institutions who’ve subverted minimally plausible standards of academic integrity in order to keep their athletes eligible to play sports.

The NCAA – particularly its “collegiate model” – is facing unprecedented legal, legislative and public pressure. Until such time as it acknowledges that it does *not* consider “student-athletes” to be “students first” and that academic integrity is plainly secondary to sustaining the multi-billion dollar entertainment complex with which it is associated, the association will, at a minimum, have to feign real concern when principles of academic integrity are so plainly violated to meet the demands of collegiate athletics.

In this context, the NCAA will be hard pressed not to come down very hard on UNC.



  1. Andres Alvarez has asked if college actually prepares you for your given career, which is and was my question when I was in college. Just as I think it doesn’t really prepare athletes as well as if they were brought in to develop for a pro team. Just like college sports, universities’ main objective is to make money and education is secondary. Now that shouldn’t discourage people but empower them to be more self sufficient by trying to start their own businesses even if you have to take a couple classes to do so. Take what you need and get out. As for the NCAA, I point back to the Louis C.K. bit. Maybe every single successful thing comes from lots of human suffering and death.

    1. Andrew,The NCAA’s line on this is a good example of how it wants to have it both ways. When it suits them to talk about players commitments, we hear a lot about “contracts” and how players are being fairly compensated, as well trained for the next level. But since most won’t make it to the next level, they need also to argue that the *real* purpose of college athletics is to give the players an education, to prepare them “to go pro in something other than sports.” It’s a heads we win, tails you lose rationale.

  2. That makes it even more stunning that players have came up with the thought that “Hey, I might not make it pro so I might need to get paid now” but athletes have this irrational confidence that gets them in the position to be great but almost all the time miss the bigger picture. Like if I was Manziel, Clowney, Winston type of player (I say those types of guys because they were good early in their minor league careers), I would be looking to get to the NFL as early as possible. The three year rule is dumb. What do guys like that do after being so dominate so early. Avoid getting hurt. People hated that Clowney played with perceived less effort but if I was him, I would probably do the same. People see that as selfish, which it is(hate that word gets a bad connotation), but its completely rational.

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