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NCAA’s Survival May Hinge on Someone Using Their Inside Voice

By Rick Burton,


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Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

One thing most of us can agree on is that prophets of doom aren’t much fun.

For good reason. They usually throw around metaphors, saying things like Mt. Vesuvius is about to blow. They’re a buzzkill.

We see the same with predictions involving the NCAA ’s coming demise. Saying the association is in trouble is easy (the drumbeats sound daily), but what would hot lava pouring over 69 Power Five schools look like?

Might college sports find itself boiled alive and then frozen in time, a quaint reminder of a bygone era? Would the big schools drop their Olympic sports (the non-revs) that “lose” money and make them club sports, or force the participants to pay to play (think elite AAU teams or youth soccer)?

Could the Power Five (or even just two of those conferences) break from the NCAA, create their own entity and begin paying their collectively bargained football and basketball players? Would this leave the NCAA watching over the rest of Division I, II and III?

Or, without the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to monetize, could the NCAA simply declare bankruptcy and unceremoniously shut down?

None of these scenarios are likely popular topics with the “establishment,” but here’s the thing: Something is coming very soon, and many in college sports are ignoring the warning signs. Why is that?

On a 2020 episode of Hidden Brain , the National Public Radio segment, host Shankar Vedantam discussed why humans often disregard predictions of catastrophe. They willfully ignore looming disasters.

That’s because outsiders with no influence (i.e., the media, politicians, liberal do-gooders, nay-saying prophets) are generally the ones forecasting, in vague terms, the problem.

I’m one of those people, and have used dire metaphors in past Sportico columns in discussing the NCAA. But despite my role as Syracuse’s faculty athletics representative (FAR) to the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), I won’t be believed. I can predict Pompeii’s downfall but am unable to stop it, because I sit outside the sacred circle.

What Vedantam says is necessary is a plain-spoken insider. For the NCAA, that will require a university president capable of corralling others of equal rank.

“Warnings are likely to be heard,” Vedantam explained, “when they’re made by someone who’s part of [the] in-group, when the warning is so imminent that nearly everyone can see the danger, and where the solution doesn’t require a radical shift in existing strategy.”

Unfortunately, as Vedantam heard from one of his Hidden Brain interviewees, “what makes warnings so difficult to believe is their political inconvenience.” That’s probably hampering the NCAA. The situation is inconvenient, highly political yet ever imminent. The lava (in the form of lawsuits) has been flowing for years.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NCAA’s needing a hero before it was too late. The story included a quote from Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman acknowledging that “fixing” or “saving” the NCAA would prove difficult and might ultimately require federal intervention. NCAA president Mark Emmert says the same thing. Frequently.

Interestingly, the name I didn’t provide in my column was Greg Sankey. The SEC commissioner is particularly relevant if sports fans view the NCAA as a football-first enterprise (which is logical given the revenues college football generates, and that the NCAA’s 1910 founding was driven by football deaths). The SEC is good at games on the gridiron.

When Sankey was asked recently about the NCAA, the transformation committee co-chair essentially said too many folks are happy trying to leave things the way they are. “We are in a world after the Supreme Court decision [referring to the 9-0 Alston case] that suggests things are not going to stay the same in the future. We have state legislation, we have federal congressional interests. Keeping things like they’ve always been is not really an option.”

So, where does that take us? Looking back, I’d say my story trended well for a few days and then headed to the digital graveyard. As it lay dying, I shared it with John Barrows, a friend who edits the Monmouth County Timeline , an online website chronicling the history of this seaside New Jersey county.

When Barrows responded, he zeroed in on Ackerman’s suggestion about the Feds.

“Keep in mind,” he offered, “the last time a blue state was home to an NCAA football champion was 2004. So, you have legislators from Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and Georgia that you’d have to get on board [to support that idea]. Good luck getting federal intervention for reform. The [folks in those states] think the current system is just fine .”

I didn’t debate Barrows whether Georgia or Ohio were considered red or blue. Nor whether “red states” believe the NCAA has a problem. Instead, I wondered how Congressional stakeholders view prophecies about the NCAA’s demise.

To be sure, congressional representatives from both parties have launched all manner of NCAA-themed bills during the last two years, including the College Athletes Bill of Rights which is (or was) intended to “guarantee fair and equitable compensation, enforceable health and safety standards, and improved educational opportunities for all college athletes.”

I don’t think we’ll hear the government sounding the alarm. Bureaucrats don’t initiate bills when the lava is coming down the hillside. That’s when they get out of town.

No, the person needed has to be someone who currently sits on the NCAA’s Board of Governors (BOG) and holds inside influence. Who is that person?

Odds are good it’s one of the five BOG reps from a Division I school (Wisconsin, Baylor, Georgetown, North Carolina State and Georgia). These individuals represent conferences with the most to lose should the volcano blow.

Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University.

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