This week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing schools to offer extra benefits for college athletes is another blow to the NCAA’s tortured attempts to maintain the amateurism of those whose talents produce big pay for others.
But the blow wasn’t really dealt by the court. The NCAA did it to itself. First it let the standard of the true student-athlete erode and then the NCAA exploded it in 2017 when it sidestepped the scandal over athletes taking phony classes at the University of North Carolina. The governing body of college sports declined to sanction UNC, saying it had no authority to require a minimum of academic rigor in classes taken by those it calls student-athletes.
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who led the NCAA’s investigation into years of sham UNC classes involving more than 3,000 students, nearly half of them athletes, said the NCAA was troubled by the fraud but was unable to act.
“NCAA policy is clear,” Sankey said. “The NCAA defers to its member schools to determine whether academic fraud occurred.”
That concession capped decades of the NCAA looking the other way as schools increasingly flouted the presumption that athletes in big-time college football and basketball programs would be compensated with an actual college education. Basketball players who go pro after a year and the increasing number who transfer regardless of the loss of credits made the drift from academics plain. But when the NCAA allowed UNC players who remained eligible through phantom classes to compete, it made those players, and by extension all college athletes, acceptable as non-students. Or, more accurately, uncompensated workers.
The NCAA realized that the UNC case exposed a yawning gap in its oversight of athletes’ academic edibility. In 2019, the NCAA Board of Directors considered a proposed bylaw that would have given the association more authority to handle academic misconduct, but it did not adopt it.
In the end, the NCAA’s neglect of the collegiate part of its name has left many athletes in major revenue sports marooned on campus. They’re at institutions of higher education but they are not there to learn. Eventually – and it has taken a shamefully long time to come – a court will say: If you’re only going to play them; then you’ve got to pay them.
The Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t say that directly. It was a narrower decision that rejected the NCAA’s claim that allowing schools to offer extra benefits to prospects would lead to bidding wars. The court said that the NCAA cannot limit what schools offer so long as the benefits are educationally related.
But the ruling is being read more broadly than allowing schools to offer athletes extra education-related benefits such as scholarships to grad school, paid internships, computers or cash awards for academic achievement. The ruling is being read as further opening the door to paying college athletes, a process already begun as more states pass laws that would allow college athletes to profit from the commercial use of their name, image and likeness.
In a concurring opinion to Monday’s ruling, Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed to what now seems inevitable: The end of the sham of amateurism and the start of paying college athletes. He wrote:
“The bottom line is that the NCAA and its member colleges are suppressing the pay of student athletes who collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year.... But the student athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing.”
Kavanaugh added, “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”
Would that model have received such an indictment if the NCAA had pressed schools to provide athletes what was supposed to be their compensation – a college education? Would Kavanaugh be writing that many Black athletes from lower-income families receive “little or nothing” had UNC not so vividly demonstrated how hollow that compensation can be?
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com