Thursday, August 11, 2011

NCAA Changes: First, Consider the Welfare of the Athletes

The announcement that a group of high-level people from the NCAA are finally beginning to turn the corner toward some kind of sanity in the way they handle athletes and college sports programs is welcome, but forgive me if I approach this with a level of skepticism.

The governing body for college sports has been a friend of big money for far too long (think: bowls) to all of a sudden start considering the welfare of a bunch of poor teenagers and early 20-somethings who serve as the NCAA's labor pool. The NCAA makes your normal labor/management relationship look like a great marriage. It is so close to slavery that I'm surprised it has rarely been called that.

Talented athletes are told that if they'll give four years of hard--extremely hard--labor, they'll be given some portion of their college education as compensation. Most often that portion is in the range of half of their tuition. For most football and basketball players at large schools, it's all of their tuition, books and some money for expenses. It is not enough, however, to keep kids--like those at Ohio State who were caught selling their own jerseys and rings--in the money. Forget the fact that those football players were selling items they owned, items they earned. They were still breaking arcane NCAA rules, of which there are more than 400 pages.

The NCAA boys are talking about paring down the book to the essentials. In effect, if you get paid to play, you are ineligible. Can't give the stars bling, homes and cars. The kids will have to keep up their grades in order to get into school and the various programs will have to have an overall GPA that is acceptable if they're going to any of the tournaments (you can say "goodbye" to Kentucky basketball in the NCAA tournament right now).

A number of years ago, Bill Brill, the late sports editor of a Roanoke daily paper (and a guy I worked with for 10 years), broke a story that Virginia Tech had not graduated a basketball player in 10 years. Everybody around the program was mortified and since then, Tech has become a model of compliance.

The ACC, in fact, has several models--none of which is in Florida--but the University of North Carolina still lost its football coach a few weeks ago in a flap with the NCAA about agents. Carolina's basketball teams--and those at Duke--would likely be in trouble under new rules, not so much because their guys can't read (they can), but because they're so good, they turn pro after one or two years. That's the problem at Kentucky: the kids are students, wink-wink. Graduation rates are important and you can win with good students. Ask Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee or Gino Auriemma at UConn.

The NCAA needs desperately to consider the welfare of its athletes first. This is an organization that should not be protecting bowls first and teenagers' bodies second. I don't see a lot of evidence that the NCAA even cares about the kids, except as generators of huge amounts of money. That should be the first thing to change.

(Photo: University of Richmond)

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