Time for College Football to Issue a Declaration of Independence from the NCAA

Published February 26, 2013

The Washington Post’s John Feinstein — one of the great real sports journalists in America — used the latest, scandalous developments in the NCAA’s investigation of the University of Miami to argue for the dissolution of the NCAA. He is right, and it’s an idea that is long overdue.

I will spare you the arcane details of the NCAA’s investigation of Miami — other than to say that the governing body that administers the arcane, arbitrary, and senseless rules of collegiate athletics is guilty of more serious and substantive misconduct than the school itself.

In the wake of this, Feinstein writes something that rings true to most fans of major college sports:

The NCAA needs to go the way of typewriters, the Edsel and black-and-white TV. Its time has passed. Collegiate sports can no longer be run with an iron fist — especially an incompetent one — or with the quaint notion that Quinnipiac women’s basketball can operate under the same rules as Alabama football.

Exactly. The NCAA has long been a farce of a governing body, more hypocritical and corrupt than the old Soviet Politburo — but with “death penalties” that are only metaphorical, and with fewer pairs of contraband blue jeans smuggled to favored apparatchiks. It is long past time for the commissioners of the Division I-A football conferences (I refuse to use the Newspeak version: “FBS Division”) to convene the football equivalent of a “Continental Congress” and sign a Declaration of Independence from the NCAA. With apologies to our Founding Fathers, I can help them get started …

When in the Course of Sporting events, it becomes necessary for one sport to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with other sports, and to assume among the powers of the gridiron, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Football and of Football’s God (television) entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of college football fans requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that NOT ALL college sports are created equal, that football is endowed by its TV ratings with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Money, Honesty and the pursuit of Playoffs.

Look. The market has spoken: Major college football is a business, not merely an extra-curricular activity of athletic students. Can we stop pretending otherwise? If we did — if we were realistic about what big-time college football has been for decades — this is how I propose it could be reformed in a way that is honest,  sensible, and justly governed:

Universities would recuit kids to play football at their school and pay them a stipend, with a maximum amount that all major conferences agree to adhere and publicly report. These athletes would be enrolled in school, but would also be employees of the university, because that is what they are. Something akin to that worked well for me at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a full-time student who was also an employee of the university. I worked in the library and as a dorm desk attendant overnights, while also dedicating many hours a week as a drummer in the marching band and working for the school newspaper.

These athletes would be required to register for enough classes to meet the minimum requirement for “maximum part-time.” They could choose to take full advantage of the academic benefits of their scholarships by enrolling full-time. Who knows? Some of the football players might even enjoy it. And here’s the kicker: Schools and coaches would have a huge incentive to encourage these football players to enroll fully and complete their educations because the school would get extra athletic scholarships for the football program based on the team’s graduation rate. That’s an example of market forces and incentives at work — something the football players might even learn about in class.

But the schools must also let scholarship athletes complete their degrees free of charge after their athletic eligibility is over — either by coming back to campus or taking online courses — up until the age of, say, 35. This would incentivize schools to follow up academically with their former players because these post-college graduates would also count in the graduation rate that comes with more athletic scholarships. More market-based incentives at work!

If the commissioners of the “BCS” conferences got together to declare independence and set up guidelines such as these, the NCAA would either have to capitulate and get a piece of the pie, or declare Division I-A football no longer part of the NCAA. The conferences would laugh at the latter — the NCAA would be foolish to even consider that option, but be the biggest loser in the deal — and should happily acede to the former. There will be plenty of money to go around. Either way, college football fans and common sense wins.

The upshot is that the NCAA would become largely irrelevant, as it must be, to the administration of big-time college sports — which is a business, a lucrative entertainment outlet that is “professional” for everyone but the performers. It would also let the NCAA go back to doing what it was designed to do: elevate club sports to a “sanctioned” level and run tournaments to crown champions of such sports as wrestling, volleyball, and tennis.

Since this is such a good and logical idea, the chances of it happening is about as good as me playing quarter back for Alabama next year. On the other hand, a lot of “smart people” never saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union coming. So who knows? The BCS conferences have all the power. Maybe one of these days they will have the will to use it … and declare their independence from the incompetent and corrupt NCAA.