Brian Murphy: NCAA finds itself in a predicted pickle

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comMarch 30, 2014 

Maybe it had to be this way. Maybe the money was always going to grow so obscene and the NCAA, no matter what it did, was going to find itself on the other side of lawsuits from former players and attempts to unionize from current players and unrelenting criticism from media members.

But maybe it didn't have to be like this.

Perhaps, if the NCAA and its member institutions were more nimble, more adaptable, more willing to cede ground to the athletes instead of holding on to a dated concept of amateurism, we wouldn't be here.

Maybe if the bigger, richer conferences weren't carving up the smaller ones to make more television revenue, if they weren't using that money to push coaching salaries higher and higher and higher, if they didn't pay out bonuses that rewarded millionaire athletic directors for national titles won by wrestlers on partial scholarships, we wouldn't be here.

Here is a dizzying time for college athletics.

Northwestern's football players won the right to form a union last week after being ruled employees and not student-athletes, as the NCAA has stubbornly maintained. The school has filed an appeal. The case will drag on. It will take a while before we can decipher whether the Northwestern players have created a new paradise for college athletes or killed the entire system.

A bigger case looms. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA could open the door for players to get a cut of the massive television revenue generated by football and men's basketball. It is the case that could open the floodgates for college athletes.

If the NCAA loses both cases, it's not hard to imagine a future where some athletes collectively bargain for a share - let's say 50 percent - of the television rights revenue.

Would that mean the end of sports that don't produce revenue? What are the Title IX implications? The tax implications?

Can we say goodbye to coaches making $7 million per year and facility renovations that cost hundreds of millions? Do the schools without those vast sums of money - Boise State and Idaho, for example - get regulated to a lower level of football or do they abandon athletics altogether?

No one can say for sure.

But what if the NCAA had been more responsive?

What if its member schools had closed the cost of attendance gap for its athletes instead of inflating coaches' salaries? What if it had guaranteed four-year scholarships as long as athletes satisfied certain standards rather than making them one-year and chasing unproductive players from their rosters when necessary?

What if the NCAA had created a fund that former athletes could tap into for medical bills later in life rather than lavishing the money on administrators and an increasingly ineffective compliance department?

What if the schools had allowed players to capitalize on their own likeness rather than selling them to video game producers and jersey makers and cashing more checks?

What if some schools had held up their end and provided a genuine education to players rather than keeping them eligible with sham classes and easier majors?

Would we still be here?

We won't know now.

What we do know is that the status quo won't stand.

Football and basketball players are too aware of the money that they generate, of the salaries that their coaches - the coaches who control almost every aspect of their lives - are being paid to let the status quo proceed.

The games provide order, even in an upset-riddled NCAA Tournament. But the clock is ticking and change is coming.

Dizzying times indeed.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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