Stop Blaming the NCAA

By Dr. Samuel Jay

In the middle of October, as part of a government investigation into Adidas consultants paying college basketball recruits, text messages between University of Kansas head coach Bill Self and Adidas’s T.J. Gassnola were made public. Shift through the texts and it becomes clear Self was not operating as an ignorant nonparticipant in the pay-for-play transactions. He was central to them.

I don’t know what will happen now. Most likely nothing.

Remember last spring when University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller was in deep shit for the same brand of activity? What happened to him?

Exactly.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how so few fucks come to be given about these cases. They circulate a bit in the news stream, garnering attention for four or five days, but soon enough they’ve disappeared, ignored by writers and commentators who turn towards other sports stories more comfortable to write and more palatable to consume.

I think I now know how this is done so effectively, without compelling any of us to stop down and ask “What the hell is going on here?!”

Coverage of these stories tends to focus on two blamable parties: the NCAA and the players involved. These characters are central to the narrative not because they are driving the story, but because their voices are absent from it.

Follow along with me here.

With the NCAA, which is nearly always brought up at some point in commentary on pay-for-play scandals as a parasite that takes advantage of student-athletes, you have a character too large and convoluted to speak for itself. The organization is consistently personified, but effectively without the presentation of a person -not even president Mark Emmert- who can counter the criticism. As a result, we consume these stories, accepting the NCAA as a “greedy cartel of an organization,” dumping blame onto a non-person without fear that some person would argue back in defense.

Predictably, this trope surfaces during two moments in the year:

First, during the middle-to-end of the college football season as we prepare for conference championships, bowl games, and the College Football Playoff. It is at this time that we criticize the NCAA for making money off the backs of Division I college football players, the thousands of whom provide ESPN with a month’s worth of often-mediocre content.

Second, in the midst of March Madness, often after the excitement of the first weekend has passed and we settle into an Elite Eight and Final Four made up primarily of schools who are members of Division I men’s basketball nobility: Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina. It is at this moment, especially once the annual oddity of a Loyola-Chicago has been dropped, that we turn back to the NCAA and scold them for the $1 billion they earn from CBS and question why that money isn’t going back to “the kids.”

And again, this sense-making works for us because the NCAA cannot talk back.

Neither can the student-athletes, the second vessel of blame which carries with it an immense rhetorical effectiveness and thus, allows these faceless teenagers to carry the weight of a system that’s flawed from top to bottom, doing so without speaking for themselves.

Do you ever remember a student-athlete in the midst of one of these cases or investigations speaking up?

Me neither.

DeAndre Ayton said nothing last year amid the Arizona scandal. Terrell Pryor didn’t say much while an investigation was going into the trading of Ohio State football memorabilia for tattoos. Eric Dickerson has still never said shit of any value about SMU boosters handing out cars.

And to be clear, The Fab Five only spoke up after they left Michigan.

Of course, while these two parties are taking all the blame, the gents most in need of criticism -the coaches- are criticizing 18-year-old recruits they missed out on (see: Syracuse’s Jim Boheim) or screaming at “the media” (see: Sean Miller).

Worth stating is the irony that for years the University of Kentucky’s John Calipari has been viewed by college basketball fans as the sleaziest of balls while also being the most honest about how the system works and the fact he’s been able to take advantage of it.

I like John.

It’s time to start putting mics in faces of the people who can most completely answer for the wrongs that are done. Get Boheim to answer a difficult question in a press conference or make Bill Self feel uncomfortable enough to remove that perpetual shit-eating grin off his face.

It’s time to hold these men accountable, whether it be football or basketball coaches. They are the ones benefiting the most from these wrongs, winning championships and getting raises when things are overlooked while avoiding persecution when they aren’t.

And to end, here’s a brief sidebar: Rick Petino was fired from Louisville not simply for a pay-for-play scandal, but because prostitutes were being leveraged to land recruits.

We live in a capitalistic society, but a puritanical one as well.