The NCAA is flawed but politically invulnerable (essay)
Recently, my old friend, Alex Wolff, had an op-ed piece in Sports Illustrated in which he predicted that a metaphoric meteor would hit the National Collegiate Athletic Association. His meteor consisted of the lawsuit by various ex-players, led by Ed O’Bannon, that challenges the NCAA’s right to use their likenesses in video games and other profitable enterprises without any compensation whatsoever. Adding velocity to Alex’s meteor are the regular op-ed columns by Joe Nocera of The New York Times pointing out the hypocrisy and unethical behavior of the NCAA.
All this led to the article’s subhead: “Reviled and legally besieged, the NCAA faces the stiffest challenge yet to its power.”
All of Alex's assertions are true -- especially the hypocrisy and unethical behavior -- and yet strangely irrelevant, even the lawsuit which the plaintiffs might win in the lower courts. One of my advantages and disadvantages of having studied college sports for over 30 years, and also having tilted full blast against the NCAA’s windmills during that time, is that I have seen it all before and, therefore, hold in abeyance all judgments as to the NCAA losing its grip on college sports.
Since 1980, The New York Times has had a stream of editorials, articles, and even investigative reports attacking the NCAA. In addition, its best sports columnists, especially Ira Berkow and Robert Lipsyte, regularly pummeled the NCAA and, on occasion, George Vecsey and others joined in. Nothing changed.
Moreover, Sports Illustrated has hardly been silent -- in fact, one of Alex’s best pieces was done in the early 1990s and called for the death penalty for the out-of-control University of Miami football program. Miami and the NCAA played on.
Now, Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit is a nice twist on an old legal story -- the NCAA has been sued before, sometimes paid millions to settle, and grows in power. There is no question that the O’Bannon suit has logic, ethics and justice on its side.
But many cases with similar attributes die in the courts. If O’Bannon wins in the present court, the NCAA will appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Because the case could set the precedent of turning college athletes into professionals and thus forever overturn the nature and history of college sports, the conservative majority may back away from finding for O’Bannon.
But if they did -- and the media never discusses this possibility -- the plaintiffs’ victory could be short-lived. The NCAA has close friends in Congress -- all those representatives sitting in the skyboxes of their local schools for football and basketball game -- and the association would immediately ask its political friends to write a new law to nullify the Supreme Court’s judgment, possibly to give the NCAA special status similar to Major League Baseball’s.
Ironically, congressional support for the NCAA transcends partisan politics. Members from both sides of the aisle would rally behind the association because the NCAA is the keeper of college sports, and the vast majority of Americans love college sports and politicians have no appetite for going against this love.
So, Alex, good try. As always, your heart is in the right place. It is important to keep fighting the NCAA and to point out its hypocrisy and cant. I would love you to be right about the NCAA’s decline but, sadly, all my years of observing college sports tell me otherwise.
Murray Sperber is a visiting professor in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program at the University of California at Berkeley.