At the heart of every wrong move the NCAA has made over the past decade lies a miscalculation that ultimately led it to a 9-0 slaughter at the Supreme Court on Monday and could one day take the entire enterprise down.
When you’re as singular and powerful and woven into the fabric of our culture as the NCAA, you tend to think that not only does the American public fundamentally believe in what you’re doing but that they always will.
So whatever otheradministrative flaws the NCAA has always had, its decision to fight for amateurism to the bitter end wasn’t rooted in ideology as much as it was a bet that the people whose support it needed just wouldn’t care to know anything different.
Thus, the NCAA never recognized a need to take another path than the one it chose over and over: Dig in, fight and then, when there’s no other option, fix whatever you need to fix to keep the model intact.
But beyond any of the technical aspects of the Alston vs. NCAA ruling handed down by the Supreme Court, which is too narrow on its own to completely dismantle amateurism, this is what stands out the most: As an institution and as a mission, what the NCAA says it represents is now out of step with how America views college sports.
And the NCAA, it seems, is the last to realize it.
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against the NCAA in a landmark antitrust case. (Photo: Aaron Doster, Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)
“(The Supreme Court) doesn’t say that student-athletes can now be paid for play or receive salaries for their performance. That’s a very good thing,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told USA TODAY Sports in an interview a couple hours after the opinion was issued. “Would we have preferred to have won the case? Obviously. That’s why we made our arguments but the Court decision leaves us where we were before the case was argued, so the immediate impact isn’t enormous but the long-term impact is something we’ll have to sort through.”
But there’s really not much to sort through here, because the truth is shockingly simple. Most people who watch college sports no longer care whether the athletesmake money.
That’s a cultural evolution the NCAA has been slow to realize and even slower to put into action. On July 1, athletes will be able to monetize their name, image and likeness — a long overdue change that happened only because of the pressure applied by various state legislatures and Congress.
JUSTICE SERVES: Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh rips NCAA in antitrust ruling, says it 'is not above the law'
And guess what? When it comes to on-field drama and the passion created by college sports fans, not a single thing is going to change. The sports are going to be as popular as they’ve ever been, which is what has happened time and again in other sports.
Golf and tennis didn’t lose fans when they became prize money sports in 1968 instead of tournaments limited to amateurs; they became more popular than ever. The Olympics didn’t lose viewers when it dropped its prohibition of professional athletes; in fact they’re watched by more people than ever.
And when the NCAA is eventually forced to give up on amateurism as well, it will be shocking to them how little the popularity of college sports had to do with the fact that athletes are only given a scholarship and a small living stipend instead of their fair share of the billions this enterprise generates.
“It was only through the ignorance and naïveté, and that’s being kind, but the selfishness of the NCAA itself that they thought they could run over people and own people,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a former shoe company marketing executive who encouraged former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon to become lead plaintiff on an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA that was the first legal domino to fall on where we are today.
“I think that’s the reason the athletes won this time. It was a continuation of beating on the door, beating on the door and the public started paying attention and opened their eyes and said, ‘This isn’t the way it should be.’ The public got educated and the NCAA never, ever adjusted. They thought they’d just keep bullying their way through.”
The NCAA had good reason to think that. For so long, it was able to count on important entities in American life — whether it be the courts, the federal government or the general public at large — to have its back and put college sports into a special category where the rules that govern other similar industries kinda sorta don’t apply.
But the Supreme Court’s opinion in Alston should give college sports leaders great pause about whether they can bank on any kind of protection going forward.
Though the appeal and the Court’s ruling was narrowly focused on benefits tied to education — things like computers, paying for foreign exchange programs, graduate education and even $5,900 academic achievement bonuses every year can be offered to college athletes — there will now certainly be more litigation aimed at other parts of the NCAA’s model.
And unless the NCAA gets some type of protection from Congress, it’s going to be a never-ending, expensive, drip-drip-drip of a legal wrangle to hold onto its rulebook.
As Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote in the court’s concurring opinion: “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.”
That should be a harrowing thought for the NCAA, which up until now wasn’t just committed to holding the line on amateurism but actively sought this fight in front of the Supreme Court. Instead of taking the ruling from the 9th circuit as something of a win because it generally upheld the amateur model, the NCAA got greedy. They wanted deference to their ability to make their own rules codified in law. They wanted it all.
And now, instead of evolving, instead of compromising, instead of cutting off a little piece of their enterprise to signify that college athletes have value beyond a scholarship, they’re in for the fight of their lives.
“They killed themselves with false prophecies and promises and the public just said, ‘Nah, you can give these kids something. Now go work this out,' " Vaccaro said. “And they never wanted to work it out. They waited for this decision. They could have worked this out almost at the beginning of O’Bannon.”
Every bet the NCAA has made in the dozen years since the O’Bannon case was filed has backfired. And if the NCAA continues down this path, the bets are only going to get bigger and more costly.
Because even more fundamental than the law, which the NCAA has repeatedly violated, is what Americans perceive to be fair. For decades, the NCAA was able to convince almost everyone that the deal it offered athletes was a fair one.
Now, nobody's buying what they're selling — even the Supreme Court. And as usual, the NCAA looks like the last to know.
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