I could not let University of Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari’s recent suggestion about abandoning the National Collegiate Athletic Association and creating a new structure for Division I athletics pass without comment. I have for many years been troubled by the growing disconnect between the NCAA and the athletic programs it is to govern, the students it is to serve, and the fans whose support is vital to the continued viability of intercollegiate sports. As that gap grows wider, it is inevitable that suggestions like Calipari’s will multiply, and that the future of the NCAA will become clouded.
My suspicion is that the NCAA will shrug off Coach Cal’s suggestion and treat it as a predictable reaction to its recent complaint that UK had improperly celebrated Calipari’s 500th win as a coach. I suspect that in the mind of NCAA officials, such an investigation was necessary because the celebration impugned its absolute authority. Several of the games that UK was counting in that total had been ordered by the NCAA to be forfeited for various rule violations attributed to schools at which Calipari had coached, although he was not found personally responsible. The fact that his teams actually won those games, and that the rule violations that led to the forfeits had nothing to do with the actual outcome of the games, was irrelevant to the NCAA.
Calipari’s concerns strike me as being much deeper, and reflect a growing sentiment of lost respect and confidence in the NCAA’s rulebook.
What struck me about the NCAA reaction to the UK on-campus celebration was its pettiness. Here was the NCAA announcing that it was going to initiate an investigation because people and fans at UK wanted to celebrate their coach.
The pettiness in this small episode is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem with the NCAA is that its enforcement framework has lost sight of its mission. The rulebook governing collegiate sports has become so complex and so minutiae-driven that every Division I program in the nation has to employ lawyers on a full-time basis to be certain they are in compliance.
The recent episodes at Ohio State, where athletes sold their autographs and memorabilia for cash and free tattoos, led its longtime coach to lie about the activity to protect his program from NCAA sanctions and eventually resulted in his forced resignation. And for several of their athletes, opportunities to graduate or to get another year of experience under their belts in advance of a chance to play in the NFL will be sacrificed. The question is: Where is the harm? Did selling autographs affect the outcome of games? Was anyone injured?
Years ago, a basketball coach at one of the universities I managed in New York was charged with a violation of NCAA rules because he had hosted a barbecue for his players and their families at his home on the opening weekend of school. Because the picnic was not available to the larger student body, the event was “illegal” by NCAA dictate.
Or consider the tragic story (coincidentally involving Ohio State) of Maurice Clarett. Clarett had been a freshman superstar on the football team. The adults in Clarett’s life persuaded him to challenge the NFL rule requiring that a player must be at least three years out of high school before he can be considered for employment in the NFL. Clarett lost his challenge in court. He never played a day in the NFL.
But because he tried, and in so doing had secured the services of an agent, he was immediately ineligible to play collegiate football. Clarett, a kid blessed with extraordinary talent, later committed a robbery, and sits in prison today. While he is certainly responsible for his own behavior, I cannot help but believe that the NCAA rulebook contributed to Clarett’s downfall. How is anyone hurt, or the integrity of a game impaired, because a talented athlete tests his or her capacity to turn pro?
Some may consider the few examples cited above as relatively isolated episodes. Yet I contend they are sadly too representative of an environment fostered over decades at the NCAA by misguided individuals making otherwise innocent conduct illegal in the belief that the myriad rules and regulations will preserve the essence of amateur athletics that was once the hallmark of intercollegiate competition.
The notion of “amateur athletics” in the face of multibillion-dollar television contracts, multimillion-dollar coaching salaries and athletic department budgets, is little more than a myth, which today is hurting athletes and coaches, ending careers, and subjecting otherwise honorable people to unreasonable and unnecessary pressures on and off the field (or court).
There are some who point to the institutions as the source of these problems, in that the NCAA exists by virtue of the institutions that are its members. Indeed, the governing bodies of the NCAA are composed of campus presidents and athletic directors. But, as is the case at so many organizations, the permanent staff and the chief executive wield enormous power and influence over the deliberations of their volunteer boards.
I have lost count of the discussions held at annual ACE meetings in which college presidents complain about how the NCAA is out of control, and how powerless they feel to redirect its work. Whether it is the money, alumni and boards of trustees who demand winning teams, or the vulnerability any of them feel taking on an organization that has gotten so large and so powerful, most have been unable to redirect the course of NCAA behavior.
This is not a call for the end of the NCAA. But I do argue that the NCAA needs to rethink its current rule book, and redraft a set of rules that focus on what actually matters: honest competition, the prohibition of performance enhancing substances, fair recruiting practices, and competent and safe treatment of student athletes. All the rest deserves to be trashed. If not, the eventual trashing of the NCAA will come about because fans, athletes, campus presidents and coaches know John Calipari’s idea reflects concerns that are widely shared.
Robert L. King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.