Great news from the National Collegiate Athletic Association this week: The organization’s board voted to change the way it does business.
No longer will the NCAA oversee a system under which thousands of uncompensated laborers toil to produce a product worth billions of dollars every year. Instead, it will transform itself into a sort of caste system, in which a small cadre of hardworking laborers are paid a pittance – while the remainder continue to receive no meaningful payment at all for what they produce. Progress.
In an announcement Thursday, the NCAA revealed that the schools in its five most high-profile Division I conferences – the Southeastern Conference, the Big 10, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and the PAC-10 – will essentially be able to write their own rules when it comes to off-the-field treatment of players.
Among other things, they are expected to allow players to be paid stipends of as much as $5,000 per year, to increase the amount of scholarship money available, to allow players to have contact with agents, and to make a number of other changes in how they do business and treat college athletes.
Putting aside the fact that most professional athletes in major sports like baseball, basketball and football earn $5,000 in the time it takes to tie their shoes before a game, the ruling is hardly a big win for college athletes. What it does is create compelling incentives, beyond those that already existed, for top-level players to seek out a place with a team in one of the top five conferences. “The Big 5 conferences, with their lavish facilities and expansive stadiums, have long been a class apart, and Thursday’s vote makes that top-tier status official,” as The New York Times put it on Thursday.
The move does little, however, to advance the long-term welfare of top players unless they are among the tiniest percentage of players who go onto a professional career. It also does nothing for the players at smaller tier schools who, it should be pointed out, still produce a lot of revenue.
The board’s vote to allow the elite sports schools to go their own way was really a foregone conclusion, because the five big conferences were negotiating with a gun on the table. They had threatened to break off from the NCAA and form their own competing regulatory body if they didn’t get their way.
Of course, it wasn’t presented like that on Thursday.
“Today’s vote marks a significant step into a brighter future for Division I athletics,” said Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University president and chair of the NCAA board. “We hope this decision not only will allow us to focus more intently on the well-being of our student-athletes but also preserve the tradition of Division I as a diverse and inclusive group of schools competing together on college athletics’ biggest stage.”
“I am immensely proud of the work done by the membership,” said Mark Emmert, NCAA president. “The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes. These changes will help all our schools better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree.”
Just to be clear: NCAA sports are a multi-billion dollar business. Thousands of athletes participate in them, and the majority of them do go on to earn a degree. But multiple investigations have demonstrated that the athletes playing sports that generate the most money – those playing for football and basketball programs at large state schools – have miserably low graduation rates. Others make it through school, but can only be said to “graduate” (note the word walled off by quotation marks).
Sure, some go on to lucrative professional careers (assuming they aren’t injured) – but that’s a small fraction of the total number of players who, by their group effort, likely bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the institutions they play for. Many of those are lucky to leave with a diploma, much less an education.
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