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Dear College Presidents: Break The NCAA's Vise Grip On Athletes

Feb 26, 2013
Originally published on February 27, 2013 7:37 am

The great social quest in American sport is to have one prominent, active, gay male athlete step forward and identify himself.

But I have a similar quest. I seek one prominent college president to say to her trustees or to the other presidents in his conference: "The NCAA is a sham and disgrace. Let's get out of it."

We know those presidents who disdain the NCAA are out there, but, alas, none dare speak the words that will break the evil spell.

Never has the NCAA been held in such scorn, regularly revealed as a hypocritical, bumbling vestige of a time when its so-called student-athletes were known quaintly as "lettermen" and the most notorious activity on campus was panty raids. Innocent America then bought into the NCAA justification of amateurism, but that giddy concept has come to be widely rejected — student-athletes are really sucker-athletes — and without public trust in amateurism, the NCAA is a rickety structure that cannot stand.

Basically, the NCAA has only two functions: to put on championship tournaments; and to enforce its own crazy-quilt rules. Sure, everybody likes championships, but colleges could outsource them to all sorts of other organizations. American Idol could run sports championships, I'm sure; so could Antiques Roadshow. And each athletic division, each conference should make specific rules best for itself.

As for the organization's picayune rules, consider only one recent application of NCAA law: A well-rounded young wrestler at the University of Minnesota named Joel Bauman also records inspirational songs. But even though his musical activities have nothing whatsoever to do with sports — and, of course, there's no money in college wrestling, and it's even being bumped out of the Olympics — Minnesota has told Bauman that to be compliant with the NCAA, he must cease being publicly identified with his motivational music or lose his scholarship.

So, principled, he quit wrestling. Your NCAA at work, helping our sucker-athletes.

The alumni of at least one college, Amherst, have opened a website seeking support to get their president to take Amherst out of the NCAA. More foreboding, a lawsuit brought by former athletes — which seeks damages from the NCAA for commercially exploiting their youthful amateur images in perpetuity — is one step closer to a jury trial next spring.

A couple of weeks ago, in a U.S. District Court, the NCAA lost, for the third time, an attempt to get the lawsuit dismissed. And given that this case is class-action and antitrust, which trebles damages, the NCAA could literally be liable for billions of dollars, which would, presumably, bankrupt it.

Ironically, if the esteemed presidents won't act, it may be some of those old sucker-athletes who finally do the NCAA in.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's almost spring tournament time for the NCAA, a very lucrative time of the year for the organization that runs college sports.

Commentator Frank Deford says it's time to look beyond all the hoopla of March Madness and stop exploiting student athletes.

FRANK DEFORD: The great social quest in American sport right now is to have one prominent active gay male athlete step forward and identify himself. Ah, but I have a similar quest. I seek one prominent college president to say to her trustees, or to the other presidents in his conference: The NCAA is a sham and disgrace. Let's get out of it. We know those presidents who disdain the NCAA are out there. But alas, none dare speak the words that will break the evil spell.

Never has the NCAA been held in such scorn, regularly revealed as a hypocritical, bumbling vestige of a time when its so-called student-athletes were known quaintly as lettermen and the most notorious activity on campus was panty raids. Innocent America then bought into the NCAA justification of amateurism, but that giddy concept has come to be widely rejected. Student-athletes are really sucker-athletes. And without public trust in amateurism, the NCAA is a rickety structure that cannot stand.

Basically, the NCAA has only two functions: To put on championship tournaments and to enforce its own crazy-quilt rules. Sure, everybody likes championships, but colleges could outsource them to all sorts of other organizations. "American Idol" could run sports championships, I'm sure; so could "Antiques Roadshow." And each athletic division, each conference, should make specific rules best for itself. Render unto the great and powerful Southeastern Conference different from what we render unto little Division III colleges.

As for the organization's picayune rules, consider only one recent application of NCAA law. A well-rounded young wrestler at the University of Minnesota named Joel Bauman also records inspirational songs. But even though his musical activities have nothing whatsoever to do with sports - and, of course there's no money in college wrestling and it's even being bumped out of the Olympics - Minnesota has told Bauman that in order to be compliant with the NCAA, he must cease being publicly identified with his music or lose his scholarship. And so, principled, he refused and lost his eligibility to wrestle. Your NCAA at work, helping our sucker-athletes.

The alumni of at least one college, Amherst, have opened a website seeking support to get their president to take Amherst out of the NCAA. More foreboding: a lawsuit, brought by former athletes, which seeks damages from the NCAA for commercially exploiting their youthful amateur images in perpetuity, is one step closer to a jury trial next spring. A couple weeks ago, in a U.S. District Court, the NCAA lost, for the third time, to get the suit dismissed. And given that this case is class-action and anti-trust, which usually trebles damages, the NCAA could literally be liable for billions of dollars, which would, presumably, bankrupt it.

Ironically, if the esteemed presidents won't act, it may be some of those old sucker-athletes who finally do the NCAA in.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.