The problem with hating the NCAA/Michael Bleach
This time of year is like a second birthday for a strong-willed columnist.
The NCAA strings up a piata from the lowest-hanging branch, and practically begs for this nation’s sports writers to swing at it with all the witty vehemence they can muster.
Grantland’s Charles P. Pierce goes about it with highbrow, four-syllable screeds. Deadspin takes the more direct approach with four-letter words. Jason Whitlock (Fox Sports), Dan Wetzel (Yahoo), Joe Posnanski (NBC) and Jay Bilas (ESPN) will all make sure to get their swings in.
And why not? The NCAA Tournament highlights the hypocrisy of college athletics with unapologetic glee.
Cram 80,000 fans into a football stadium for a basketball game? No-brainer, there is a buck to be made. But make sure every cup in the stadium has the NCAA logo facing forward. You can’t forget who’s important here.
Watch coaches jump from school to school as easily as a Shabazz Napier jumper? Of course. That’s their right as free Americans. They only signed a contract. That’s nowhere near as binding as the incoming student-athletes’ National Letter of Intent.
And don’t forget – they are STUDENT-athletes. Student comes first. The National Championship between Connecticut (suspended from the tourney last year for a laughably low Academic Progress Rate) and Kentucky (One-And-Done) serves as a wonderful reminder of the student-athlete ideal.
So, I get it.
The NCAA, and its soulless bureaucratic entrails, is evil. Not, just mismanaged or well-intentioned. Evil.
They do not protect the interests of student-athletes. They protect themselves.
There is money to be made and power to be brandished. The NCAA, starting from President Mark Emmert on down, will say and do whatever they can think of – no matter how obviously preposterous and hypocritical – to make that money and keep that power.
So national sportswriters bring all their powers of persuasion to bear. Whitlock calls it “shamateur athletics.” Bilas takes to Twitter relentlessly, highlighting each and every NCAA hypocrisy.
Painted like this, a battle between young men just trying to cash in on their skill set – like any of us would in their situation – and the exploitation of that skill-set by empty $3,000 suits, and it is easy to jump on board with the pay-for-play crowd. I get that. And mostly, I agree with it. Julius Randle isn’t seeing a dime from all the No. 30 jerseys Kentucky is selling, and that is certainly wrong.
But I think there is a third viewpoint here, not often considered by the head-hunting sports writer.
You can support amateur athletics without hopping in bed with the NCAA.
You can support amateur athletics for reasons, if not rational, at least somewhat honorable.
The Wisconsin run to the Final Four this season was the most enjoyable time I have ever had as a sports fan. I’ve supported the Packers my whole life and loved both Super Bowl victories I can remember. I’ve stuck through the bad times with the Brewers to enjoy the fruits of at least one playoff series win. Those were both awesome. So, so awesome.
But there is something a little deeper, a little more visceral supporting your alma mater. There is an inexorable pride that comes from seeing your school succeed. A joy from texting my classmates during games, guys who donned the cap and gown with me.
People know me as a Badger, and the Badgers accounted themselves well. It’s different than being known as a Packer fan, and watching Green Bay succeed.
I think that comes from the faux-amateurism of it all. There is a little more joy in rooting for guys who don’t drive away in Aston Martins. There is a better connection, knowing they aren’t playing for their next contract or simply showing up for a job.
Now is that a good enough reason to deny football and basketball athletes a chance to profit from their abilities? No, it’s not. But I think that honest notion gets lost in the fervor to take the NCAA down.
And make no mistake, the NCAA is going down. It might be five years, it might be 10. But like all tyrants, they will crash and burn and the victors shall dance on their ashes.
The Northwestern football union is a part of it. So are the numerous lawsuits already filed by former athletes, seeking compensation for the exploitation of their image. The relentless conference-jumping of the last few years demonstrates the NCAA’s lack of actual authority. They are a puppet government, reduced to slapping Johnny Manziel on the wrist for signing his name one too many times.
The details, of course, are still fuzzy. How much will college athletes get paid? Will they simply be allowed to cash in on their image? Will money come in the form of a stipend? Salary? Boosters?
There are a lot of questions still to answer, questions that Emmert and his ilk will have little part in deciding.
It’s just. There is no doubting that. But I’m not sure March will be the same Madness when it comes to pass.