NCAA looks like dead organization after Supreme Court ruling
Monday’s Supreme Court ruling will mean far more than two points for college athletes.
Photo: C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images
College sports in their current form have to exist, the NCAA and basically anyone who defends the system will tell you, because they have always been. Of course, you wouldn’t have created the NCAA if you started from scratch: it’s impossible to imagine someone putting “not paying athletes a salary even though their work generates billions of dollars in income” into the plan. business of their start-up. But in the context, tradition has value. Schools are broadening their profiles and their numbers; alumni are proud of their universities; athletes receive free education and the opportunity to present their work to potential future employers. Most: It has always been like this. It’s part of who we are. The galloping ghost. The madness of March. The Heisman. Win one for the Gipper. College sports are not just tradition; they or they are tradition.
How surprising then to see Brett Kavanaugh, of all people, tear everything apart by appealing to this very tradition. Monday morning, the United States Supreme Court unanimously removed an NCAA argument that he can limit “Student-athlete education payments,” claiming it violated antitrust law. But it was a Kavanaugh deal that struck the NCAA in its heart. Kavanaugh argued that simply limiting the organization in this particular case did not go far enough. He argued that the entire NCAA business model was fundamentally flawed.
Putting aside for a moment Kavanaugh’s very specific hilarity of justice’s insistence that “Memorial Day Weekend Lacrosse Championships” are very popular events – yes, Brett, who among us? did not meet with loved ones in May to cheer on the brave laxmen – the key phrase is most devastating: “The NCAA is not above the law.” And there was more.
Kavanaugh makes it clear that no one should expect the court to have the NCAA’s back in any future lawsuits against its business model, lawsuits that are sure to come. But he goes even further by calling the economic model, which has existed for 150 years, absurd and exploitative. These feelings would have been considered revolutionary if I had professed them in this chronicle space ten years ago. Hearing them coming from a face of modern conservatism is mind-boggling and a testament to how quickly public sentiment towards paying athletes – something that is not disconnected from the number of billions of television contracts suddenly poured into sport over the past decade – has changed.
This is not the death knell for varsity athletics, but it invites us to start listening to the bells. And it sure looks like the NCAA is a dead organization that works, since its primary purpose – keeping amateur college athletes – just exploded in its face in the most dramatic way imaginable.
Whenever there has been a plea for varsity athletes to be paid, those who defend the current system have responded with some variation of “Okay, how?” you fix it? ”That was a reasonable question. Do you pay some athletes but not all? Do colleges have to dip into their non-athletic funds? Are players swapped from school to school in the middle of the game? school year? Do they even bother going to school? I have always struggled to find answers to these questions, about how to reconcile the varsity sport that I love with the financial and logistical realities of the situation. That frustrated me. But then I realized that referring the question to whoever asked it was simply a way of turning away from complicity with an unfair system. What’s the best thing about you? is not a defense of a corrupt model; it is a way of keeping one’s place. Whether you’re a coach making millions of dollars on unpaid work, a college or conference (or an organization like the NCAA) cashing billions in TV checks, or just a fan who loved watching college sports so much that you never wanted that to change, defending the current way of doing things required rhetorical jujitsu. And that was a sure sign that it wasn’t really worth defending.
What the Supreme Court and Kavanaugh did on Monday was turn the tide: It’s now up to the NCAA, administrators and college presidents to come up with a plan to save their sport, if not. The NCAA must not only justify its own existence; it must justify the whole notion of university athletics.
It won’t happen immediately. As Kavanaugh noted, the overall decision was limited to education-related payments. But cases that go further are to come, and the Court has given them the green light to proceed and prosper. This is just the beginning.
Look, I have season tickets for my local college basketball team and my college football team. I watched all the basketball games my alma mater played for almost a decade. I love college sports and I don’t want them to go away. With so much money at stake, it’s hard to see how they could go. But it’s also hard to see the people currently in charge of varsity athletics, along with all the different constituencies they need to represent, devising a plan to make a new system work. The NCAA has argued for decades that amateurism is absolutely essential to the survival of varsity athletics. To survive, he will have to prove that everything he has said for decades was wrong from the start. Maybe it can be done, but it might take burning the village to save it. Maybe the small schools are completely abandoning sport; maybe larger schools become affiliated with professional teams; maybe everyone changes their shirts before the game. Who knows? If varsity sport is as important to all fans and alumni as we all claim it is, we will let it go through what is about to be a hugely transformative time and always wait on the other side. But we are about to witness quite a bonfire.