PORT ARTHUR —
Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West Collection was first published in the Port Arthur News on May 28, 2008.
One of the most stunning reversals of hard-nosed dogma in any arena was fashioned by Walter Byars, who was the first head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and directed it in an iron-fisted manner from 1951 to 1988.
In 1995, seven years after stepping down from overseeing the hypocritical world of the “student-athlete,” Byars literally shook the NCAA’s foundations by proclaiming it was time to start paying athletes due to the “neo plantation mentality” existing under the current system.
“In light of the hypercommercialization of today’s college athletics, dramatic changes are necessary to permit athletes to participate in the enormous proceeds,” Byars told the Kansas City Star over a decade ago. “College athletes don’t need new rules, they need new freedoms.”
To put in perspective just how dramatic a turnaround the one time NCAA czar’s words were, let’s ponder some hypothetical changes of direction from other powerful people.
• It would be like New England football coach Bill Belichick saying, “Hell yes we spied on other teams, and it gave us a tremendous advantage. Only a fool would think we would do something like that if wasn’t helping us out.”
• It would be like Roger Clemens saying, “Of course I took steroids. I was starting to lose my edge and I was willing to do whatever it took to get back to being dominant. The day I threw the bat at Mike Piazza was pure ‘roid rage.’ ”
• It would be like George Bush saying, “Sure, I lied about the reasons for starting a war in Iraq that has cost America billions of dollars and thousands of lives. I listened to the wrong people and we’ve paid a terrible price.”
• It would be like Bill Clinton saying. “Yeah, I had sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. Look at my history. I tend to get horny and my pick-up standards aren’t all that high.”
That brings us back to Walter Byars and why the NCAA is the topic for today’s history lesson/current events column. The movtivation is twofold.
Beyond my disgust at how the big business aspect of college sports gets passed off as amateurism, the fact the NCAA recently got nailed in court to the tune of $218 million over short-changing their cheap labor, aka “student athletes.” begs comment.
Before we examine the ramifications, let me throw out one more Walter Byars quote. And, remember, this is a guy who saw it all from the inside, who helped implement policy, for nearly four decades.
Noting how the NCAA likes to hide behind amateurism whenever the subject of paying athletes is broached, Byars said, “Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue. It is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice.”
Now, obviously, this discussion only peripherally touches on the Lamars, the Sam Houstons and other low and mid major programs. This is basically about the football and basketball factories, the Texas’, the Ohio States, the Michigans, the UCSs and others in the upper echelons who generate obscene revenues off their high profile programs and, by extension, their athletes.
To make sure the profits keep rolling in, they pay mega salaries to coaches. But the labor cost is relatively minimal — 85 scholarships in football and 13 in basketball. What’s more, the NCAA has helped hold the costs in line by refusing to budge over the value of a scholarship.
Despite playing more games, and facing longer, tougher off-seasons, athletes on scholarship for years have been basically limited to tuition and fees, room and board and required books. Any other expenses incurred during the school year, a figure the NCAA places at $2,500 for the average student, were not covered.
In the meantime, the NCAA and its member schools benefit from a $6 billion TV contract on its basketball tournament, many millions in other TV and radio rights fees for football and basketball, ridiculously priced tickets and oh, yes, selling the jerseys of star players.
Said players, of course, are not entitled to any of the considerable monies generated by the jerseys. And if said players come from impoverished backgrounds and need a little spending money, well, that’s tough.
Thankfully, the plantation mentality is about to be adjusted, although not nearly as much as it needs to be.
Due to a class action lawsuit filed in 2006, on behalf of football players at Stanford and USC, and basketball players at San Francisco and Texas-El Paso, the NCAA has agreed to fork over the above-mentioned $218 million. The money will go to football and basketball players at Division 1 schools dating back to 2002.
The $218 million will be available through the 2012-13 school year to athletes who can demonstrate a financial and/or academic need for access to the funds. Some $10 million is earmarked in chunks of $2,500 per year for expenses incurred above what a scholarship paid.
For the NCAA, the payoff could have been worse had it not agreed to settle out of court. Since anti-trust laws were invovled, damages awarded in court could have been tripled. Also worth noting is the NCAA, in the beginning, tried to play the “protecting amateurism” card, as well as the “maintaining competitive balance” argument.
Ultimately, two high powered Los Angeles law firms blew them away. The genius in their approach, according to the insidehighered.com website site, was not requesting pay for athletes, but seeking to show that the NCAA and its members violated federal law by agreeing to artificially suppress the value of scholarships.
Somewhere Walter Byars is applauding.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com.