As president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert has $1.7 million a year riding on the premise that college sports are integral to the mission of higher education in general, a number that frankly lends a certain insight to his cause. Sympathy, even. After all, if you made that kind of money, you'd probably find that preserving the integrity of the beleaguered "student-athlete" was one of your "core values," too. You'd probably also miss the irony of picking the most lucrative weekend on the NCAA calendar, as Emmert did earlier this month, to describe a regional National Labor Relations Board ruling that athletes qualify as university employees—that is, professionals—as "grossly inappropriate." You'd see it as Emmert does: as an existential threat.
While acknowledging that the relationship between schools and college athletes is headed for some measure of change, Emmert said making them unionized employees "would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics."
Though the NCAA is not directly involved in that process, and the ruling is likely headed for a long appeals process through the national NLRB and eventually the court system, Emmert was highly critical of the notion that collective bargaining could be applied to college athletics.
"You can't split that one in two. You're either a student at a university playing your sport or you're an employee of that university," he said. "If you move to a model where you have labor negotiations between management – that would be coaches and athletic directors – and student-athletes to determine everything about what that relationship should be, is a wildly different notion than saying these are students."
Of course, "Overcompensated Bureaucrat Defends Status Quo" is not exactly breaking news. (For sheer predictability, Emmert's response is surpassed only by reflexive Republican efforts to strangle a mewling union movement in its crib.) In Emmert's mind, and in the minds of the two-thirds of Americans who purportedly agree with him, the status quo is so entrenched that it hardly needs to be articulated—as far as he's concerned, "wildly different" is enough to disqualify any competing model as a nonstarter. No surprise there, nothing new.
What is new in this decade is the increased willingness of outsiders—the NLRB, CAPA, Ed O'Bannon—not only to point out that the emperor has no clothes, but to take him to court over it. At this point, it's the only recourse they have: By digging in its heels to preserve "amateurism," the NCAA is staking its claim as the most incongruous institution in America, beholden to a vestigial ideal that is nowhere to be found in the culture at large. In virtually every other respect, the United States is the most market-obsessed, laissez faire-fetishizing nation on Earth, and one that has always valued self-starting enterprise over the tweedy rigors of formal education. (How many of the people extolling the glories of the "free" education these athletes receive are the same ones decrying, in other contexts, the nigh-treasonous elitism of our colleges? I wonder.)
Yet it is also the only nation that has intractably yoked athletics to academics, and made "student-athletes" the only adult citizens systematically denied the opportunity to exploit their true market value. Major college sports is the only arena, anywhere, that even pretends to view "amateurism" as a virtue worth preserving. As John Gasaway wrote in 2010, "No one struggles every day to grow more amateur in their conduct. No parent ever told their child, 'It's important to always be amateur.' No one ever justified a tough decision by saying, 'It's just the amateur thing to do.' … The trouble is that 'enforcing' something as unthreatened and commonplace as amateurism is simply odd to begin with, like 'enforcing' shyness, procrastination, or eye contact." In 2014, the guys flouting the system come off looking at least as noble the guys still defending it.
This was a big week for the future of the NCAA as we know it, on two fronts: On Thursday, the NCAA Board of Directors gave its blessing to a new governance model that awarded the so-called "Power Five" conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—greater legislative autonomy than the rest of Division I, thereby allowing schools in those leagues to offer recruits beefed-up scholarships and other incremental perks that Have-Not schools cannot afford and have so far managed to block; and today, Northwestern football players voted "yea" or "nay" on union membership, the results of which balloting we won't know until the NLRB rules on Northwestern's appeal.
Regardless of the outcome in those cases, though, it's clear where things are headed. With each passing summer, and each new challenge in the courts, and each new salvo from an increasingly incredulous media, the question is less if the pillar of "amateurism" will eventually topple, but when.
Which leaves with a more fundamental question: How? As in, how did a system so brazenly at odds with the broader culture emerge as the de facto model in college sports, and how has it endured for so long? And why, for that matter, do college sports even exist?
The history is important. The NCAA was never inevitable. It was a quirk of its time and place, born out of the since-discarded myths of a now-unrecognizable cultural moment. From the other end of the telescope, you don't see an unshakeable feature of the American landscape; you see an accident that just got bigger.
It was a shotgun marriage from the start, one that likely would have never occurred to anyone if the first football match on record in America had been staged between, say, a pair of ramshackle YMCA squads or a private gentlemen's club, rather than a handful of students from Rutgers and Princeton collapsing in a heap in a field in New Brunswick, N.J. Instead, the game grew up from the very start on campus, taking hold first on elite campuses in the Northeast.
Conveniently, this arrangement fit snugly within the Victorian ideal then in vogue of rugged-yet-refined manhood—known in its ecclesiastical strains as Muscular Christianity—which would evolve over the subsequent three decades, picking up adherents on this continent who felt the closing of the American frontier had weakened the moral and physical fiber of the nation. (James Naismith, the father of basketball, counted himself in the Muscular Christian camp.) The prevailing attitudes of the day would form the intellectual framework of college sports in general.
When Teddy Roosevelt, the pre-eminent avatar of turn-of-the-century virility, assumed the presidency in 1901, football was in crisis, targeted for extinction by Progressive-era reformers alarmed both by its brutality—players in the 19th century were all too often maimed or killed on the field—and the scourge of the "tramp athlete," traveling ringers with "as little formal education as a goat," who would register as students just long enough to take the field, pocket a few dollars, and move on under a different alias. ("They always had trouble at roll call," wrote Lehigh alum Kyle Crichton in 1957, "for they had played under so many different names that they often forgot their present one.") But Roosevelt was a fan of the game, as was his successor in the White House, Woodrow Wilson, who as president of Princeton pronounced team sports a natural, healthy component of the university's mission to enrich mind, body, and spirit—in other words, to nurture Roosevelt's Man in the Arena.
By today's standards, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States— launched in the wake of a pair of White House pow-wows between Roosevelt, Wilson, and other delegates from gridiron powers Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in 1905, mostly as a sop to the reformers—was overseeing little more than glorified intramurals. Yet from that germ would soon sprout, in 1910, the NCAA, manned largely by officials from member schools to enforce standardized rules and eligibility requirements, and thereby to shore up athletics as a core component of American higher education. Following the example of the recently revived Olympic games, the early architects of the NCAA also entrenched the turn-of-the-century notion of "amateurism," to which their successors still cling a century later, as doggedly as ever.
Note that amateurism in this context is not so much a virtue as a fact of life. It would not have occurred to anyone in 1910 that a student from a credible institution would want or need to profit from athletics, much less pursue it beyond graduation. All college athletes went pro in something other than sports because there effectively were no pro sports. Apart from major league baseball, such operations in the early 20th century tended to be upstart, ramshackle endeavors akin to (in today's terms) regional professional wrestling, a kind of traveling sideshow entirely unsuitable for anyone who had ever had the good fortune to set foot in a college classroom. (It wasn't until 1925, when University of Illinois headliner Red Grange joined the fledgling Chicago Bears, that pro football began to appear viable, and even then NFL stars were generally forced to hold down offseason jobs well into the '70s; meanwhile, the league that became the NBA wouldn't tip off for another two decades, following World War II.) One simply did not think of turning a bit of undergraduate roughhousing into a career.
And for a while, at least, a few schools with strong football programs made a token effort to mind the gap. Notre Dame, a national power once denied entry to the Big Ten on the grounds that coach Knute Rockne too willingly flouted recruiting and eligibility rules, refused to participate in the tawdry spectacle of postseason bowl games for 45 years, because the school's administrators feared the institution would acquire the unsavory reputation of a football factory. Not to be outdone, the University of Chicago, a founding member of the conference that would become the Big Ten in 1896, dropped its football program altogether in 1939, just four years after U of C halfback Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy. Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins publicly dismissed the sport as "an infernal nuisance" that distracted the university from becoming "the kind of institution it aspired to be." Fifteen years later—in an era when Cornell, Harvard, and Yale still routinely finished in the year-end football polls, and Princeton halfback Dick Kazmaier had just captured the Heisman by a huge margin in 1951—the eight university presidents of what would become the Ivy League signed the Ivy Group Agreement, which reaffirmed their commitment to denying athletic scholarships and generally restraining football "in such a way as to maintain the values of the game in the service of the main purpose of higher education."
Outside of the Ivies, of course, the scales seemed to be tipping the other way. (It was around the same time, in the early '50s, that Oklahoma president George L. Cross assured the state legislature, ''We want to build a university our football team can be proud of," a line so perfect almost everyone who has read it since has failed to grasp the intended irony.) Despite the enthusiasm, though, college sports was still an overwhelmingly regional affair featuring accessible, hometown heroes, hardly a cash cow commanding lavish facilities and structural reforms to accommodate expanding cash flows. In fact, the NCAA under longtime executive director Walter Byers went to great lengths to restrict the most promising revenue stream to a trickle: Even as television succeeded in the '50s, '60s, and '70s in turning the NFL into a burgeoning global juggernaut, Byers restricted TV networks to broadcasting a single "Game of the Week" in various regions because he viewed the tube not as a tool for spreading the game's popularity, but as a competitor threatening to undermine ticket sales.
The landscape began to change in the late '70s, when dissatisfied schools banded together independently of the NCAA to negotiate with networks under the banner of the College Football Association. It subsequently collapsed for good in 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA-controlled television plan violated the Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts. With the courtʼs decision in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the floodgates were thrown open, and the NCAA—always a bit of a Potemkin organization to begin with—was largely cut out of the action. Individual conferences now negotiate and profit accordingly from their own media contracts, including the cartel-like postseason arrangement in the top tier of Division I football. At the University of Texas, for example, annual revenues have risen from the neighborhood of $4.5 million in 1981 to more than $165 million in 2012-13, the vast majority of that growth coming in the past decade. Meanwhile, the NCAA is left with the far less lucrative privilege of organizing postseason tournaments in all other sports, only one of which—Division I menʼs basketball—contributes significantly to the bottom line.
By the time Byers retired, in 1988, college sports was awash in money, and small-time corruption was at a high. His response over the years to the inevitable professionalization of "amateur" sports had been to retreat further into a sort of willed innocence. When the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died in 1955 from a head injury sustained while playing football for Colorado's Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workers'-compensation death benefits, Byers and the NCAA "crafted the term student-athlete," as Byers himself would later write, "and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations," the idea being that he was a student above all, not an school employee who had suffered a work-related accident. (Remember that when you hear "student-athlete" tossed off casually today during broadcasts: The phrase was coined as a means of denying compensation to the widow of a man killed playing college football.) For all his efforts, Byers hadn't kept "amateur" sports innocent of market forces. He'd only ensured that the money flowed in one direction, away from the "student-athletes."
By the end of his tenure, Byers had turned apostate, angrily renouncing the NCAA's pretense of amateurism. "Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue; it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice," he wrote. His colleagues were aghast: "It was as if I had desecrated my sacred vows."
For his part, Emmert is not saying anything now that his predecessors have not said over the past 60 years. But it is Emmert's misfortune to be saying it at a point when the reality has begun to lay such obvious waste to the rhetoric. It is debatable how many of the gatekeepers in college athletics who have pledged allegiance to the "main purpose of higher education" over the years have really meant it. It is not debatable that the current vanguard is exceedingly richer, and has moved to consolidate those gains through maxed-out media deals, conference realignment, the implementation of a football playoff, and a further separation of the Haves and Have-Nots in the formal structure of the NCAA. The contradictions have been heightened, as an old Marxist might say. College athletes are vastly more coveted by coaches, boosters, agents, media types, marketers, licensers, and assorted hangers-on than anyone in 1910 could have dreamed, and more obliged to transform themselves into rippling, precisely honed freaks worth millions. "Student-athlete" was always a cynical, Orwellian turn of phrase; with the influx of big money, it's a sick joke.
In any other context, they'd call this what it is: business as usual. Instead, Emmert finds himself trapped in a quasi-Victorian context of character-building recreation unsullied by profit, a century-old vision that had been reduced to a fig leaf long before he was born. It's not his fault. He just happens to be the guy wearing it as it begins to wither in an environment for which it was never adapted.