The day before yesterday, if a school reached the Final Four or the College Football Playoff and anyone—the NCAA, the CFP, the school, a booster, President Obama, etc.—agreed to pay for a parent of one of the athletes to travel to the game, it was unethical conduct, an extra benefit, and punishable with ineligibility.1,2,3 It was all part of a commitment to ensure athletes don't get paid to play their sport—never mind that normal students make money from their universities in all sorts of ways, like working at the student paper, selling ads for the yearbook, or developing internet start-ups. But that was then. Yesterday, the NCAA announced if you make the basketball Final Four, your folks get $3,000. Make the finals and they get another $1,000. In football, it's a flat $3,000 for making the playoff.
Turns out, it's not about amateurism at all. It's about family.
"Championship experiences like the Final Four create memories of a lifetime for student-athletes, and we want to make sure their families are there to support and celebrate with them," said NCAA President Mark Emmert.
Even though this announcement happened in a matter of days after Ohio State's AD Gene Smith publicly shamed the NCAA for not allowing this, the volte face has been in the works for quite some time:
"Mark Lewis, NCAA executive vice president of championships and alliances, said... 'Providing travel expenses has long been a part of this discussion, and I'm thrilled we were able to move forward with this support.'
As "thrilled" as the NCAA is today to be doing what was unethical just yesterday, how ethical this newfound commitment to family is probably depends a lot on who does the giving. For example, I suspect bylaw 188.8.131.52,, which prohibits the receipt of "transportation or other benefits" for an athlete, or his/her relatives or friends from anyone "marketing of his or her athletics ability" isn't going away any time soon—it's just that the NCAA and the folks who run the CFP will now be outside the reach of the rule, regardless of whether they can be said to be "marketing" the "athletics ability" of the athletes in their capstone competitions.
Pretty squishy stuff as far as bedrock goes, eh? Banned yesterday, rationalized away today, just so long as it's only done by the billion-dollar shell cartel or its football doppelgänger, and no one else. Small wonder the court in O'Bannon concluded that Emmert wasn't exactly convincing in his defense of the NCAA's unwavering dedication to principle:
Dr. Emmert testified that 'the rules over the hundred-year history of the NCAA around amateurism have focused on, first of all, making sure that any resources that are provided to a student-athlete are only those that are focused on his or her getting an education.' .. The historical evidence presented at trial, however, demonstrates that the association's amateurism rules have not been nearly as consistent as Dr. Emmert represents."
When something is strictly forbidden one day and then totally kosher the next, it's very hard to say the original ban was ever important, necessary, or fundamental to the enterprise as a whole. If you're going to argue you need to be allowed to break federal law against collusion to preserve a deep, abiding principle, shouldn't the foundation of that principle be a little less shifty?
Put another way: Why is it okay to pay for parents to travel to a championship game, but not okay to provide parents with a nice place to live? More practically, if it's now okay to pay for athletes' parents to travel to some games, why isn't it okay to pay for athletes' parents' to travel to any (or even all) games?
If your answer is, "There's not enough money for that!" remember that this is about letting schools do it if they want, not requiring them to do it. It's also illegal to collude for the purpose of holding down costs, something the NCAA knows well since it got busted for this in the 1990s when it tried price fixing coaches' pay.
If your answer is, "Ah, well, but these kids earned it by making it to the finals of their sport," then isn't that really just what the NCAA would call "pay-for-performance"? We'll pay you if you win seems more like prize fighting than amateurism.
If there is one bedrock principle the NCAA has stood by for its 100-plus years of existence, it's that amateurism is whatever the NCAA says it is—currently codified in bylaw 12.02.8: "Pay is the receipt of funds, awards or benefits not permitted by the governing legislation of the Association for participation in athletics." That is, money is pay unless we say it's not.
Originally, it was a scandal if the coach got paid. Then it was a scandal if the athlete got a scholarship; then if he got room and board; then it was okay to get living expenses paid for; then it wasn't, but soon it will be again. The most constant rule on amateurism is that there is no real rule, just an assortment of tactics and stipulations to keep costs down. And if today's level isn't working for the PR department, just change it and pretend all previous outrage and previous punishments for identical activity never happened.
The point is, this isn't about some minor NCAA "reform." This moment of conveniently timed generosity is a nice benefit, but more the exception that proves that the rule it's pushing back against is itself illegitimate. If it's halal to pay for mom and dad to go to Dallas for a football game, it should be halal to pay for mom and dad to go to Dallas for whatever reason. The solution is not waiver after waiver after exception after another Mo'ne Davis one-time thing. The solution is to stop making some payments evil and other payments laudable and fall back on a different bedrock principle—that of U.S. law, which says:
Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.
Like, say, the contract among all of the schools restraining how much an athlete, or his parents, can get in exchange for helping bring in a buck or two.
1 10.1 Unethical Conduct. Unethical conduct by a prospective or enrolled student-athlete or a current or former institutional staff member, which includes any individual who performs work for the institution or the athletics department even if he or she does not receive compensation for such work, may include, but is not limited to, the following... (c) Knowing involvement in offering or providing a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete an improper inducement or extra benefit or improper financial aid;
2 16.02.3 Extra Benefit. An extra benefit is any special arrangement by an institutional employee or representative of the institution's athletics interests to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete family member or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by NCAA legislation. Receipt of a benefit by student-athletes or their family members or friends is not a violation of NCAA legislation if it is demonstrated that the same benefit is generally available to the institution's students or their family members or friends or to a particular segment of the student body (e.g., international students, minority students) determined on a basis unrelated to athletics ability.
3 16.01.1 Eligibility Effect of Violation. A student-athlete shall not receive any extra benefit. Receipt by a student-athlete of an award, benefit or expense allowance not authorized by NCAA legislation renders the student-athlete ineligible for athletics competition in the sport for which the improper award, benefit or expense was received. If the student-athlete receives an extra benefit not authorized by NCAA legislation, the individual is ineligible in all sports.
4 16.01.1 Eligibility Effect of Violation. A student-athlete shall not receive any extra benefit. Receipt by a student-athlete of an award, benefit or expense allowance not authorized by NCAA legislation renders the student-athlete ineligible for athletics competition in the sport for which the improper award, benefit or expense was received. If the student-athlete receives an extra benefit not authorized by NCAA legislation, the individual is ineligible in all sports.
Andy Schwarz is an antitrust economist and partner at OSKR, an economic consulting firm specializing in expert witness testimony. Follow him on Twitter, @andyhre. Photo via Getty.