Is the NCAA More Corrupt Than The Miami Hurricanes?

Originally published in Bloomberg View.

The June 17 issue of Sports Illustrated includes a long feature on the NCAA’s University of Miami debacle. (I wrote about the case here.)

It’s not your usual portrait of a shady university knee-deep in recruiting violations. This time, the NCAA—not the U—comes in for some of the harshest criticism.

To refresh your memory, the Miami scandal once looked like it would be one of the biggest, easiest takedowns in NCAA history. Ex-Miami booster Nevin Shapiro was going to serve up everything from photographs to credit-card receipts to demonstrate that he had been lavishing NCAA-prohibited gifts on the school’s athletes for years. But the investigation went off the rails a few months ago when it emerged that the NCAA had inappropriately paid one of Shapiro’s own lawyers to help it nail Miami.

It’s an interesting piece, complete with a jailhouse interview with Shapiro, who is doing time for money laundering and securities fraud. “I thought I was dealing with the FBI,” Shapiro said of the NCAA. “Instead I was dealing with a bunch of clowns.”

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re criticizing the NCAA or its member schools for their ever more elaborate failures to enforce the association’s rules. Either way, you buy into a fallacy that the rules themselves are worthy of enforcement, thus helping to perpetuate the corrupt system that is big-time college sports.

The SI story suggests that it has become almost impossible for NCAA enforcement agents to do their job. Their much-maligned boss, Mark Emmert, undermines agents by engaging in private conversations with university presidents. Whatever (bogus) moral authority the NCAA badge once carried is severely eroded: Recently, Miami lineman Dyron Dye filed a report with the local police claiming that an NCAA enforcement officer had threatened to take away his eligibility if he didn’t cooperate with the investigation.

But the SI story never stops to consider whether the economic forces that the NCAA’s rules are designed to impede might be too powerful to dam. Recruiting talented athletes to play for your school generates profits. Rules or no rules, money will flow toward talent, even if it never takes the form of actual salaries.

According to SI, the NCAA’s bungling of the Miami case has left it with a “lose-lose proposition.” It’s not going to look good if it comes down hard on the school after making such a hash of the investigation. But if it lets Miami go with just a stern warning, says SI, “the current level of cheating in college sports . . . is almost certain to continue.”

The thing is, what they call “cheating” is really just the inevitable result of a collegiate price-fixing scheme. Eliminate that, and you eliminate the problem. It's possible, after all, to pay athletes in dollars, instead of in prostitutes and Jet-Ski rides. As sports economist (and NCAA bane) Andy Schwarz puts it: “When a school gives a player money in exchange for playing and generating revenue for its profitable football team, the only real scandal is that we allow the NCAA—a collection of that school’s economic competitors—to punish them both.”

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.

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