Facing revolt, the NCAA turns to a different playbook — that of 19th century Britain's consummate politician 

Disraeli Gears

Disraeli Gears

Preservation of power is a strong motivator.

The great English statesman Benjamin Disraeli recognized this. By the mid-19th century, Britain had avoided the revolutions that plagued Europe. But Disraeli was starting to feel "occasional earthquakes" and hear "ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea," as he put it in his famous 1872 speech at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

The traditional power structure was in danger of collapsing. As a response, Disraeli created what we now call "one-nation conservatism," a pragmatic method of governance in which the haves share with the have-nots, the ins with the outs. It's not distributionism so much as paternalism. The powerful respond to the wants and needs of the less powerful in the interest of keeping revolution at bay.

NCAA President Mark Emmert is starting to hear those dark rumblings.

If he's smart, he'll listen to them. College sports' governing body is much maligned. At best, its punishments are often arbitrary. At worst, they're either excessively draconian or mind-numbingly placating.

The NCAA undertakes investigations that are frequently as inscrutable as they are interminable. It'll turn over every rock and paper to see if Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel sold his autograph for a pittance, even as it sells Aggie jerseys with Manziel's number on its own website. (Johnny Football, of course, won't see a dime of the revenues generated by that jersey. Nor does he see a penny from the gargantuan TV deals or wildly profitable video games.)

Locally, the NCAA hasn't governed any more wisely. Its latest fiasco was ruling that Middle Tennessee State walk-on Steven Rhodes would have to take a mandatory redshirt because he played in an intramural league while he was in the Marine Corps.

In an era where stories from college sports backwaters like Murfreesboro can reach the newsrooms of ESPN in an instant, Rhodes became a cause celebre. But the NCAA quickly reversed its initial ruling. Rhodes will be eligible when the Blue Raiders take the field against Western Carolina next week.

What's interesting is that Emmert — and the NCAA — are being responsive in a way they haven't been before. They were humiliated by the Manziel jersey debacle and cast as heartless by the Rhodes affair. Meanwhile, occasional stirrings are heard from administrators of the most major of major conferences — the SECs, the Big 10s — that they might extricate themselves from the association's monopolistic tentacles.

A revolution looms at Emmert's door. Suddenly his reaction has changed from the la-la-la fingers-in-ears approach to a crisis-management style closer to Disraeli's: Respond to the people's concerns, and they won't tear you down.

Perhaps the NCAA is just delaying the inevitable. Eventually college athletes will be paid, and it may very well be in a structure outside of the one the NCAA has created. Eventually the rules on eligibility will stop being so silly as to be meaningless — and Emmert has repeatedly said he wants to streamline the famously dense rulebook. Maybe what happened with Rhodes will be the impetus thereof.

The NCAA is at its crossroads. It can succumb to the revolution, begging the Jacobins for mercy and amnesty from the guillotine. Or, like Disraeli, it can give the people what they want — and calm the rumbling seas.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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