Cash With No Class 

The NCAA's charge conflicts with its business

The NCAA's charge conflicts with its business

If you're the NCAA, you have no choice but to be a big, fat, money-guzzling hypocrite. Lord help you, but that's your job.

That's because, really, you have two primary jobs. Your nominal job—your mission—is to promote intercollegiate athletics and ensure fair competition. But your real job—your bottom-line responsibility every day—is to manage the multibillion-dollar business that so-called amateur athletics has become among your 60 or so largest member institutions. It's not really your fault that your mission conflicts with your business. You have to take care of business.

And this is why you have to squash Mike Williams and other like-minded fellows like bugs.

Last year, wide receiver Mike Williams was one of the most electrifying players in college football. He played a major role in Southern Cal's run to the mythical national championship. This season, he figured to be a serious candidate for the Heisman.

But after Ohio State's Maurice Clarett successfully challenged the NFL's longtime policy against drafting any player before he has been out of high school at least three years, Williams decided to ride the wave. He hired an agent, dropped out of school and made himself available for the NFL draft.

There was just one problem: after Williams had committed himself, a higher court overturned the decision in Clarett's case. That left him in limbo.

So Williams tried to return to college football. He paid back the money he received from the agent. He enrolled in summer school at USC. He and Southern Cal petitioned the NCAA to reinstate him. Last week, the NCAA resoundingly said not just no, but "hell, no."

Even had the spirit been willing, the NCAA's hands were tied by the precedent of a bonehead ruling it made in the case of Colorado footballer Jeremy Bloom. Bloom, as it happens, is an Olympic-caliber skier who has accepted endorsement money to help fund his training in that sport. But, hell no: in the NCAA's eyes, Bloom is a professional athlete, which starts with P, which rhymes with E, which stands for Eligibility Denied.

Of course, in Bloom's case, it also might have helped had previous NCAA rulings offered any sense or consistency. In the past, these Governing Geniuses have decided it's OK for athletes to play college football after they've been paid as professional baseball players in the minor leagues. And they have allowed at least one athlete to run track after accepting a signing bonus from an NFL team. Why the NCAA didn't apply this formula in Bloom's case is a mystery, unless perhaps it meant to administer an extrajudicial punishment on Colorado for that program's escort-service approach to recruiting.

Or, more in character, the NCAA has a problem with allowing athletes to accept endorsement money. They've always been consistent about that. Never mind that you'd have to hire a roomful of medieval philosophers to figure out any distinction between endorsement money and a professional salary.

And, of course, you really go from meddlin' to messin' if you point out that the NCAA rakes in gazillions (with a G) in its football and basketball TV contracts. You can even buy jerseys officially licensed by the NCAA with Mike Williams' number, just as you could purchase an Ohio State jersey with Clarett's name and number on the back. In effect, Williams provides a lucrative endorsement for USC and the NCAA, though he is allowed to receive nothing from anyone.

It's not your fault, if you're the NCAA, that you were forced—forced!—into this hypocritical position. Sure, as those who agree with your position point out, Mike Williams' only real interest in being at USC is to complete his NFL apprenticeship.

But he didn't create that situation. Y'all did. And you know that the only alternative to allowing semiprofessional athletes to represent NCAA-member schools is to take all the professionalism out of college football: the scholarships, the tutors, the lavishly salaried coaches and the recruiting industry. Field teams of students who actually enroll as students and not as what you euphemistically call "student-athletes."

Obviously, you can't do that, because that way lies madness. Your billion-dollar business would shrivel up faster than you can say "Wang computers."

So you have to preserve the system in which guys like Mike Williams use your schools as stepping stones—and in which your schools use guys like Mike Williams as the talent pool for their entertainment businesses. And you have to mercilessly hammer guys like Williams who try to leave for the NFL after only a year or two. In basketball, that horse is already out of the barn. You don't want to see a similar erosion of talent from college football, and you sure don't want any more people exposing the system for what it is.

Even if they'll never say it publicly, your boys in the big office understand that the vast sum generated by their sports entertainment industry is all that ultimately keeps your organization together.

And even that may not be enough. The big football powers profoundly dislike having to share part of the TV spoil with their piddly brethren, which they regard as leeches. Eventually, and perhaps sooner than you think, the big dogs are going to break away and start their own league beyond your control and beyond your ability to harness any of its revenue streams.

The league will be as professional as the big dogs want to make it. But one thing it won't be is hypocritical. It will be all business and no pretense of fielding students as amateur athletes—a quaint notion that will be bequeathed to college rugby and lacrosse teams. In its own weird way, that will actually be an improvement.


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