Jenkins: The NCAA has outlived its usefulness; let’s bury it

Sally Jenkins

In defending its alabaster-pure reputation, the NCAA likes to criminalize others. Recently, it sentenced Georgia running back Todd Gurley to “40 hours of community service” for selling his autograph. But I’ve been leafing through the sheaves of the NCAA rulebook, and in a diligent search of its 432 pages, I failed to find a single sentence empowering NCAA President Mark Emmert to put a tin star on his chest and serve up phony lawman imitations. I also can’t find the part where the NCAA is allowed to conduct shakedowns like a crooked sheriff.

The need to dissolve the NCAA and put its Indianapolis headquarters into foreclosure has been fully demonstrated in the past weeks. Repeatedly, the NCAA exceeds its authority in petty matters or intrudes in large matters where it has none, while completely failing in its one real responsibility: education. On the heels of the Gurley fiasco, came a series of subpoenaed emails in a Penn State court case showing that the NCAA “bluffed” the school into forking over a $60-million fine in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case. NCAA officials acknowledged in the emails that they didn’t have the right to levy the fine, but they knew the school was so wounded and embarrassed by Sandusky it could be intimidated into accepting the punishment. Now, this comes perilously close to blackmail.

Meantime, the NCAA has exhibited total paralysis in the one case truly in its purview: the broad, years-long academic scandal at North Carolina, in which scores of athletes were kept academically eligible with fake “paper” classes and prearranged grades.

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At this point, the NCAA is limping along on sheer incumbency. The above examples illustrate that among the NCAA’s many problems is a complete lack of understanding of what it even is, or should be.

“The magnitude of failure is miserable, and so is its absence of leadership,” said Donna Lopiano, a former University of Texas director of women’s athletics who has become a reform activist.

The NCAA so lacks coherence that every attempt to exercise authority veers from vacuous to ham-handed. A community service sentence for Gurley? What part of the community did he aggrieve, exactly, by owning his own signature? And what is the philosophy behind stripping Joe Paterno of his career victories following a child-molestation case when it’s not even established what he knew about it? While leaving Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston on the field during a sexual assault inquiry everyone in charge knew about?

If you’re getting queasy from the whiplash, avert your eyes.

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Before any talk about how to “fix” the NCAA, comes the question of why it is needed at all. To establish rules? It has no means of enforcing them – short of extortion tactics. To negotiate TV contracts? All the big conferences can do that for themselves, and are establishing their own networks. To stage championships? The biggest event of all, the $440 million college football playoff, isn’t even run by the NCAA, but instead by the five power conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision, who hoard the revenue.

The NCAA has proven incapable of reforming itself, or anything else. The disturbingly pale and atonal Emmert, who shows the leaderly qualities of a glass of distilled water, has long preached the need for “serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports.” Yet this summer the NCAA Division I board of directors’ idea of reform was to grant even more “autonomy” to the five power conferences – which enables the top 64 schools in the five richest leagues to behave more like pocket-lining plutocrats than ever. More rake-offs and skims landing in the bank accounts of conference commissioners, athletic directors, and bowl execs, and more skyboxes for Alabama and Texas A&M.

This seems to have finally tipped the scale for lawmakers, who have long weighed revoking the NCAA’s tax-exempt status as a “nonprofit educational” endeavor, as opposed to a nakedly commercial cash grab that exploits free labor.

This fall, in a stinging article in Inside Higher Education that got a lot of traction in Washington, an influential lobbyist-think tank of sports-minded academics known as the Drake Group called for policymakers to abolish the NCAA Co-written by Lopiano and Drake Group president Gerald Gurney, an Oklahoma professor, it cited “the abject failure of the NCAA to retain a nexus with the educational missions,” or to preserve “a clear line of demarcation between collegiate sports and professional employment.” And it called the NCAA an unsustainable model in which “a minority of the wealthiest institutions controls a constant escalation of wasteful spending and extravagance.”

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It should be replaced, they wrote, with a new federally chartered organization that oversees collegiate athletics, similar to the U.S Olympic Committee. And given the limited antitrust exemption, it needs to take power back from the plutocrat conferences.

It’s one thing to say the NCAA must disappear; it’s another to describe what should take its place. Most attempts get snarled up over whether a governing body’s proper role is to set rules, conduct championships, protect amateurism, or determine how to achieve competitive balance. All of this misses the point. “There is nothing in this story about the kids,” Lopiano said.

The Drake Group restores the point, with a simple shift in focus: The new governing body – every rule in its book, and every dime of its revenue – should be devoted to the players on the field, not to the barnacles who cling to and sponge off them.

“What they should be doing is protecting the health, welfare, and educational opportunities of college athletes,” Lopiano said.

Those hundreds of millions of dollars in TV rights fees, bowl monies, and licensing? They should cover injury insurance for athletes, and the full cost of their scholarships through graduation. “Every red cent,” Lopiano says.

The Drake Group proposal would return exclusive control of all championships to the new governing body, and not a dime of revenue from a football playoff or Final Four would go to one team over another based on win-loss record. Instead it would be split equally. No more multi-million-dollar salaries for coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, and NCAA presidents – those would be capped. No more fueling “the arms race of lavish exclusive and unnecessary athletics facilities” – athlete-only facilities would be prohibited. The money and the focus would be put where it belongs: on the minds and bodies of the kids who play the games.

Not everyone will like the grainy details of the Drake Group proposal, which includes everything from corporate-style governance by a 23-member board of directors made up of former athletes and college presidents to strengthening due process for accused athletes. Also proposed: taking oversight of academic support away from athletic departments and giving it to tenured faculty; prohibiting cancellation of scholarships for reasons of athletic performance or injury; limiting practice hours.

Details aside, the basic philosophy behind the Drake Group’s argument is indisputable.

The point is this: Replace the NCAA with a governing organization that by law must expend all its benefits, energies and resources on the athletes themselves. The rest of the specifics will fall into place.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at