Let’s do a quick mental exercise before diving into this week’s column. In your mind, picture an economic system that is based on a state-sanctioned monopoly, which conducts contract procurement with little competition in the bidding process, and is wholly sustained by a labor force that receives minimal compensation.
If the first image that came to your head was modern China or the former Soviet Union, give yourself a pat on the back. However, if your answer was the NCAA, you are correct and can now skip ahead to the Isaac Azimov Super Quiz
Over the past quarter century, the NCAA has become synonymous with the multi-billion dollar business of college sports. It has become a cultural staple which annually brings us such joys as March Madness and the BCS, all while obfuscating the fact that such grandeur is built on the backs of players who kindly donate one to four of their prime, young adult years for our entertainment without receiving compensation.
Even though all forms of child labor, slavery and indentured servitude have been outlawed in the U.S. for quite some time now (didn’t we fight a war over this?), somewhere along the way we carved out an exception for college athletes. In addition, an elaborate system was also developed to punish and shame colleges who dared to offer compensation to their players, as well as players audacious enough to accept those offers.
A recent Yahoo! report suggested that the NCAA may consider stripping Alabama of its 2012 National Championship because a former player allegedly acted as an intermediary and funneled compensation to players on the team. The total amount in question was $45,000, which is roughly the median annual household income in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the NCAA reported a record $71 million surplus in 2012.
The NCAA’s sheer economy of scale and potential to produce lucrative returns for well-behaved actors – and, perhaps more importantly, to punish those who fall out of line – has been the carrot and stick needed to keep member schools on the straight and narrow.
One could make the argument that the internal focus and self-sustaining growth trajectory of the NCAA mirrors that of, say, the Chinese Communist Party. There can be no alternative, because no alternative is permitted to exist.
But the NCAA seems to have finally met its match with Johnny Manziel. This summer, the reigning Heisman trophy winner was implicated in a pay-for-autograph scandal which generated an incredible amount of public sympathy, prompting calls from the media – including a Time magazine cover story -that college athletes be paid for their services.
Now that public opinion is staunchly against them, it appears that the NCAA has little recourse but to begin introducing monetary or in-kind compensation packages, though to what extent remains to be seen.
In the meantime, we can continue to marvel over how the antics of a testosterone-fueled, party-going teenager led to the downfall of the iron-fisted NCAA regime.