Much to His Chagrin
By Michael Shagrin, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, September 21, 2012
Much to my chagrin, top NCAA executives have privately considered eliminating the “student-athlete” designation from official use, according to ESPN. I’m concerned about this terminological shift, not because I will sorely miss the catchy “S-A” abbreviation, but because it is this type of surface-level debate that will hinder any progress on the very serious, very real issues facing the NCAA and those subject to its rules.
These internal discussions were exposed during the proceedings of a class-action lawsuit filed by former collegiate athletes which disputes the NCAA’s ability to sell commercial licensing of an athlete’s image to third parties like video game manufacturers.
Wallace Renfro, NCAA senior policy advisor, authored the memo suggesting the “student-athlete” label be changed to “student.” At the heart of the scandal is the conception of college athletes as amateurs.
“In the most romantic sense, we think of amateurism as playing sports for the love of the game, then we use this romanticized sense of amateurism to define the entire enterprise of collegiate athletics,” Renfro wrote in the memo.
Renfro’s words are a cryptic, bashful way of describing the NCAA’s malignancy. In express terms, the governing body of college sports conveniently treats its student-athletes as amateurs while harnessing their talents as a commercial product worth billions of dollars.
As New York Times columnist Joe Nocera described it, the NCAA operates much like a traditional cartel. He poignantly explained that the organization’s “real role is to oversee the collusion of university athletic departments, whose goal is to maximize revenue and suppress the wages of its captive labor force.” The single-mindedness of the NCAA and its stakeholders was displayed vividly in a recent reform proposal.
Recent studies suggest that the average value of scholarships is about $3,500 short of the full cost of attending college. The NCAA’s Board of Directors reacted by permitting Division-I schools to provide additional $2,000 stipends to help bridge the financial gap. This directive, while commendable, is astounding because it so obviously challenges the pretext for amateurism. However, the phalanx of athletic directors and conference commissioners loudly objected to the optional policy, citing its affordability as a problem, and the policy no longer exists.
This attempt at reform came in the wake of a cascade of sanctions against players and their schools for accepting minor gifts like food or discounts and major gifts like cars and cash. The NCAA chooses to lay the blame on the student-athletes rather than address the system-wide issues that brought about these infractions. Other rejected reform proposals included providing universities the option of offering four-year scholarships — presently, scholarships are renewed yearly at the discretion of coaches, meaning the student-athletes have little security in their long-term collegiate plans — and instituting stricter academic standards for eligibility.
As I struggle to find a solution for the pressing problems facing collegiate athletics, I can’t help but feel that these discussions aren’t very relevant to Dartmouth.
The Ivy League cannot offer athletic scholarships. Ancient Eight schools can deploy only need-based financial aid when recruiting athletes, which cannot be tethered to participation in athletics. Furthermore, the Ivy League has its own academic eligibility standards, as well as a system called the Academic Index for determining admissions — both of which are intended to maintain the conference’s storied academic integrity. For illustration, one need only look to the mass withdrawal of athletes during the unfolding cheating scandal at Harvard University. Lastly, the subject of commercialization is probably the issue facing the NCAA that is least applicable to Dartmouth and the Ivy League. While we have proportionally large fan bases, the revenue our squads generate is pennies relative to the nation’s top programs.
The Ivy League’s interaction with the NCAA seems to parallel a completely ineffectual federalist relationship. The central governing authority establishes nonsensical laws in order to keep the largest, most powerful states in check while ignoring the smaller states because they have less potential for votes and tax revenue.
Rather than trying to determine how to tweak the NCAA to improve the character of the prevailing system, we should instead be collectively considering the wisdom of conceding to the cartel’s authority at all.