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College sports needs an NCAA

It is fashionable to poke fun at the NCAA, even correct. Despite their numerous and well-documented flaws though, there is a place for a regulatory board in college athletics.

A necessary evil.
A necessary evil.
Joe Robbins

You've probably read a few "death to the NCAA" articles over the past few days, and for good reason. The organization's latest investigative mishap with Miami is perhaps their biggest screwup yet, and highly deserving of scorn and snark. The Nevin Shaprio situation not withstanding, it's easy to poke at the blatant hypocrisy of a few overfed stuffed shirts pontificating about morality and education while lining their coats with TV deal money and kicking historic rivalries to the curb. It isn't hard to be frustrated when we read about burdensome regulations on breakfast condiments or when actual rules investigations take longer than the Warren Commission.

After reading about screw up after screw up, dreaming of a world when the big schools finally combine into SuperConferences and break away from the tyrannical rule of skinny Newt Gingrich certainly seems justifiable, especially when you root for an unabashed one percenter college sports program. Perhaps the venerable Spencer Hall is right. Maybe the NCAA is just a parasite that should just be discarded into the dust bin of history, right next to the University of Chicago football program and the WAC. They seemed like good ideas at the time, but hey, things didn't work out.

Such dreams ought to stay dreams. As horribly frustrating and as badly deserving of reform the NCAA is, it is still a necessarily evil. College sports cannot be successful and remain college sports without a strong, centralized governing body.

The principle critique of the NCAA centers around the idea that trying to maintain the amateurism of college athletics is absurd. The idea that players should not be monetarily compensated while administrators and bowl sponsors make millions seems non-nonsensical and immoral. As the monetary value of Big College Athletics grows, NCAA regulations increasingly represent a man trying to stop a firehose with his finger. Why keep up this stupid charade that nobody believes except the IRS?

To answer that, let's ignore the NCAA for a moment and ponder the likely outcome of financial free agency. We know that a successful football team means big business for a university. LSU, for example, pulled in nearly $70 million in football related revenue in 2009-2010, which accounted for a whopping 14% of LSU's gross income, including tuition payments. The demand for a quality football player is strong, which should push up demand. Given the deep pockets of premier programs (and their boosters), it is reasonable to assume that bidding wars for star players could reach values far beyond that of their scholarships. $50,000 a year? $75,000? $100,000? More? It certainly doesn't strain reason to think so.

We also know that there is a *significant* difference in the ability of NCAA institutions to pay for such services. If the free market requires schools to not only play for an academic scholarship, room and board for an athlete, but also an extra stipend, many lower-end schools would be priced out of football entirely. That might be good for the proverbial bottom line, but I certainly don't think it would be good for the sport as a whole. One of the things that gives college sports their magical charm over professional leagues is the allure of the great upset. Lopping off the first two rounds of the NCAA tourney because nobody from the Great West, Patriot or MEAC can afford to field teams anymore takes away what makes March March. We might even lose Wednesday night #MACtion (or have it neutered), and we'd all be poorer for it.

After we've navigated the payment issue, are we still going to expect students to go to class? Without massive infrastructure dedicated to help tutor athletes (and assuming a natural devolution of the emphasis on maintaining even a charade of academics without any need to placate an outside sheriff), keeping football and basketball players eligible would be a difficult undertaking. The honor system is one thing, but how many institutions would legitimately police their own when the only authority they'd answer to isn't just a jury of their peers, but a jury of their partners in financial liability? Keeping kids in class after a bunch of 18 year olds suddenly have money? It'll be nearly impossible. If you're being honest to yourself, how many lectures would you attend if you suddenly have fifty grand deposited in your checking account?

Furthermore, who is double checking eligibility? Are we okay if we just allow that kid to take a portion of his new football earnings to pay somebody else to take his tests? Is it okay if situations like UNC become more of the norm? If there isn't an NCAA, whats the incentive for institutions to not wholesale fabricate academic records, knowing the potential payoff?

Maybe we decide that the academics angle isn't important. Who cares if Johnny Manziel goes to class?

When I was a kid, I had this great football game called Bill Walsh College Football for the Sega Genesis. It was one of the early games that didn't have any kind of NCAA licenses, so the game couldn't use the actual school names. I spent a few summers in the basement, guiding a scarlet-clad Columbus team against the State Colleges and Bostons and Pullmans (I didn't figure out Pullman was supposed to be Washington State for at least a year). It looked kinda like college football, it sounded like college football, but it wasn't college football. If we completely divorce academic obligation from the sport, we have semiprofessional sports with marching bands. It won't be the same game.

Many have pointed out the immorality of forcing kids to play for free, when the enterprise of big time football and basketball is so profitable, and the students put themselves under significant injury risk to do so. This is true, but it would be equally immoral and exploitative to deprive kids of a chance at a higher education in the name of TV ratings.

Let me explain: Despite the proliferation of excellent college basketball players, only a tiny handful each year put themselves in a position to make a meaningful career out of professional basketball. There are currently 347 schools in D1, and at 12 players a roster, that gives us 4164 kids in D1. Each year, about 50 of these kids will be drafted by the NBA, and maybe another 50 will start on a european roster of some kind. That means that a kid has about a 2% chance of landing on a reputable basketball roster post-NCAA career. The NCAA itself puts the odds at 1.3% for basketball and 1.6% for football. Not exactly great odds.

The average NBA career length is only 3 years, and for the NFL, only a little higher. The ranks of the LeBron's and the Andrew Luck's are really quite small. Bloated posturing aside, the NCAA is right. Most athletes are going to need to go pro in something other than sports.

Given the academic profile of so many football and basketball student athletes, participating in NCAA athletics turns out to be a godsend. The proliferation of tutoring and academic support systems available to a student athlete are vastly superior to what a regular student would be able to find, and for a student in the 18-22 ACT range, that extra help can be the difference between graduation and flunking out. Those supports are in place in large part because of NCAA mandates. If those are pealed back in a new wild west of college athletics, student athletes may find themselves richer in the short term, but after the duration of their college/short professional career, they'll find themselves older and totally lacking in career skills. It's one thing to receive a farcical education, but it's still possible to accidentally learn life skills in the process than without one at all.

Football and basketball student-athletes currently have a graduation rate of over 70%, and every student athlete group except for white males graduates at a better clip than their general student population peers. For the kids who won't end up cashing professional athlete paychecks, that academic boost could be a career saver.

I am not arguing that the NCAA is just, or that we shouldn't pay student athletes, or that the status-quo is acceptable. I don't believe any of those things, and we should definitely continue to clamor for a more perfect NCAA. What I do believe is that the baby should not be tossed out with the bathwater, no matter how putrid it might be. It can be awfully tempting to throw our hands up and demand we "Go Galt", but that won't serve the best interests of the sport.

Maybe the NCAA actually is a parasite. If it is though, it's deeply burrowed in the heart of our beloved sport. If we try to cut the whole thing out, we may end up losing what makes college sports college sports.