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Lichtenstein: The NFL? No, I’m Rooting For The NCAA’s Implosion

By Steve Lichtenstein
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I think Mark Cuban was only slightly off base.

What the provocative Mavericks owner should have said on Sunday was that college football is headed for implosion.

And I hope they take men’s college basketball with it.

I’ve had enough of the NCAA and its hypocrisy. Anyone who watched the latest piece from HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” on how our esteemed universities are scamming the nation had to be sickened.

The report provided more than just anecdotal evidence that athletic programs are gaming the system to ensure the required minimum percentage of their student-athletes graduate.

This is my second year covering the NBA, and all I hear from the pro-college crowd is that “at least the college kids play hard for the love of the game.”

Hogwash.

They play hard because they know that if they don’t, they risk losing their scholarship and getting tossed to the curb.

And then what will many of them have? Certainly nothing close to a college education, which was supposed to be the “consideration” given to student-athletes in lieu of a paycheck.

Sure there are outliers at every school, the Academic All-Americans who genuinely deserve credit for the work ethic that enabled them to achieve simultaneous success on the field and in the classroom. But many more students than you would think, including those interviewed on HBO, hold useless degrees.

The portrayed students, many of whom read at middle-school levels, didn’t even choose their own major or courseload. They took no-show classes or focused on variations of courses in exercise.

This is nothing new. In the 1980s, I remember Dexter Manley as the poster man-child for student-athlete illiteracy as well as befriending a student who was recruited to play football for Ohio State before transferring to Binghamton. He ran afoul of the Buckeyes’ coach when he wanted to take classes that conflicted with practice.

The difference now is how systemic the corruption has become.

Oh, and let’s not forget the exponential growth in the deposits into the schools’ fund accounts. Cuban was definitely correct on the motivation behind his statement — greed.

Television needs programming, and there are not enough pros playing every day to fill all the time slots. That’s how you have students, who presumably take classes, flying around the country during the middle of the week to play games. Only recently did the universities figure out that they can make even more money by building their own networks and keeping both the subscription fees and advertising.

But the real windfall occurs in the postseason. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, thanks to its gambling-friendly bracket format, and college football bowl games (not to mention the upcoming College Football Playoff) pay out billions to the universities. The latest contracts provide the schools with $11 billion from CBS and Turner Sports for 14 years of televising the men’s basketball tournament and $5.6 billion from ESPN for 12 years of the football playoff.

A university’s failure to attain those pesky graduation percentages would mean the loss of postseason appearances and opportunities for larger shares of those enormous pies.

And therein lies the problem.

Colleges have succeeded since forever in walking the fine line between amateurism and profiteerism. Somehow none of this tremendous bucket of revenue — from tickets, sponsorships, networks — is taxed. And despite all the cash generated by the kids from playing these games, the universities have never had to pay them anything more than per diem. They’ve even set up rules (which many willfully ignore) so that the students can’t accept any benefits outside of the scholarship such as product endorsements or gifts.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, and I don’t mean Alabama.

The universities initially treated former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s 2009 lawsuit over video games as a nuisance, but last month the judge ordered the two sides to engage in settlement talks. The idea that an entity owns your likeness in perpetuity seems counterintuitive, but that’s the NCAA. It’s like that bit in “The Simpsons” where an elementary-school teacher shows the class an old film about the food chain, which depicts how every living thing gets engulfed by humans. The NCAA wants all the money.

Another suit was filed last week claiming that the NCAA and the universities in the five major conferences are violating antitrust law by “fixing” the cap on student-athlete compensation at their scholarship level. After all, a student-athlete’s hours that are required to play his/her sport equate to most full-time jobs, yet the kids don’t even get stipends. The NCAA has always obfuscated the debate by howling “Title IX!” — the federal law that disallows gender discrimination. The NCAA claims they would have to give equal pay to women participants. I want a judge to say, “So?”

But if that wasn’t enough bad news for the NCAA, on Wednesday, after hearing arguments started by a Northwestern football player, the National Labor Relations Board found that “all grant-in-aid scholarship players for the Employer’s (University’s) football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are employees…”

That means that college football players can unionize. Today. Anyone have Donald Fehr’s number?

This is what happens when your mission gets corrupted. The universities involved in major football and men’s basketball are set up as nonprofits charged with educating their students. Instead, they enroll certain students who they know have academic resumes that make it difficult for them to succeed in classes. But they can play football or basketball well, so the schools create courseloads to keep them eligible and on track to graduate.

All because the labors of the student-athletes can potentially bring financial rewards to their schools. If a student-athlete’s performance on the field or court drops, the school can drop the student-athlete’s scholarship. The only grades that really matter come from the coach after film sessions.

And even of those who graduate, almost 99 percent of them will have to find a job in something other than the athletic form they went to school to master. What marketable skills come with a degree in “General Studies” that sometimes wasn’t even earned?

The con is coming to an end. It might take some time — hopefully not the 10 years that Cuban predicted for the NFL — but enough people in the right places have come to realize what’s under the NCAA’s hood: a bunch of greedy elitists who never learned how to share.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.  

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