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Insider

How the NCAA is like the Kardashians

12/16/2012

"That's not what college sports are about."

As the Big East continues its metamorphosis and conference realignment continues in pursuit of maximum revenue, we all hear the phrase. While backroom decisions are made by well-paid conference commissioners and executives of NCAA members -- and players have no say and no influence whatsoever -- the phrase is uttered. It has been uttered so cavalierly so many times over the years, it has become almost required language. Whenever money issues in college sports are discussed, especially the NCAA's policy of limiting athletes to "expenses only" and allowing the athletes no voice and no rights in the process, this well-worn phrase is reflexively trotted out. The mere use of the phrase is expected to end the discussion in favor of the NCAA's position.

I would submit that college sports are about a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To further illuminate the point, let's consider another endeavor and compare it with college athletics.

What are weddings about?

Fundamentally, a wedding is a ceremony to recognize and celebrate the solemn vows of two people committed to a lifelong union. It is also about religion, often sanctioned by a religious institution and held before the members of that institution. It is also about civil rights, the union being sanctioned and recognized by the government. It is also about tradition and custom.

And it is also about business, with an entire industry surrounding it. From wedding planners, caterers, dress makers, videographers, musicians and florists to invitations, jewelry, hotels, open bars and bridal registries, a wedding is supported by a gigantic industrial complex estimated at more than $40 billion annually. A wedding is also about showing off and having a big party to get everyone together. It is about family, friends, business networking and plain, old fashioned fun. There are big, spectacular and expensive weddings, and there are small, modest and intimate weddings.

And a wedding can also be about the sale of media rights, with news and entertainment coverage from helicopters to paparazzi to reality television. Yes, a wedding can even be about the sale of the rights to the union of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. Imagine, if you will, that the Kardashian wedding was based upon a real commitment, or substitute another celebrity wedding if you like. The principles are the same.

There are clear similarities between the wedding industry and the NCAA's conduct of college athletics. One could argue that college athletics is fundamentally about education. It is about learning important life lessons through the pursuit of excellence on the court or field. It is about teamwork, leadership, hard work and discipline. It is about high-level competition among full-time college students.

But college sports are also about business. The NCAA has sold nearly every aspect of college athletics and has helped create a multibillion dollar industry and has turned its events into entertainment spectacles every bit as professional and sophisticated as any professional league, and every bit as profitable as the wedding industry. The NCAA has sold its media, advertising and marketing rights -- and has held out its athletes as billboards to tout ticket sales and as vehicles for jersey sales. They have pursued revenue from athletics in almost every way imaginable.

Which leads one to this question: Has the NCAA become the Kardashians?

In my judgment, there is nothing inherently wrong with making money off of college sports, nor is there anything inherently wrong with making money off of weddings. Both are businesses. Whether a college game is played in a huge stadium before a national television audience while reaping a huge financial bounty, or played in a small gym with free admission before only family and friends, it doesn't change the fundamental nature of the enterprise. It is the same competition played by the same athletes who attend the same institutions, and the endeavor teaches the same lessons and instills the same values whether or not revenue is maximized.

Similarly, whether a wedding is held in a small, remote locale before only family and friends or is the Kardashian wedding, it doesn't change the fundamental nature of the relationship or the solemn vows of the couple. The presence or absence of money doesn't make the endeavor right or wrong.

But I consider it to be profoundly wrong and immoral for the NCAA to effectively stage a Kardashian wedding over and over again, but cut the wedded couple out completely, using them for the spectacle and financial gain yet restraining them from sharing in the financial benefits that all others involved in the enterprise enjoy. That's exactly what the NCAA does to its athletes. In effect, the NCAA chooses the caterer, the dress, the venue and the media partners, and the couple has no say and is not allowed to benefit in the marketplace.

Imagine if a governing body sold every aspect of the relationship of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries and put their wedding on television for tremendous financial gain, but decreed that Kim and Kris, and only Kim and Kris, were not allowed to accept any benefit beyond their expenses. Then, that governing body would attempt to justify that policy by moralizing it was for the couple's own good, and that they should not share in the vast revenues generated because "that's not what weddings are about."

That sounds familiar. In the Kardashian analogy, the wedding, including the sale of every aspect of it, is very much like the NCAA tournament or a BCS bowl game. And while the NCAA moralizes over what college athletics is about, it is sitting back, counting money and padding the pockets of its individual administrators and coaches at market rates while talking about maximizing revenue and the difference between the collegiate model and the commercial model. And yet decisions are made that greatly impact and affect the athletes -- issues like realignment -- but the athletes have no voice in the process. Athletes are used to generate the revenue, yet have no say and no pay whatsoever.

Whenever there is criticism directed at NCAA policy, we hear that the member schools are the NCAA. Well, if true, the NCAA is the proper place to direct all such criticism. And we'll hear over and over again the NCAA moralizing over what college sports "are about" to justify maximizing revenue while at the same time restricting the players. We'll hear it from the exiting Big East schools, all of whom were present when the Big East was raided by the ACC, and responded in kind by raiding Conference USA. We'll hear it from the major powers, and we'll hear it from the Butlers and VCUs of the world that bolted their conferences for more money and institutional advancement through college sports. We even heard it during the broadcast of Butler's upset of No. 1 Indiana, in a promotional spot produced by Butler and featuring Brad Stevens, in which Stevens told us what college sports are about. And the NCAA will tell us what college sports are about, using that phrase to justify the commercialization of college sports using the exact same methods and vehicles as all professional leagues use to maximize revenues.

Go back and examine the NCAA's version of the celebrity wedding, the Final Four and the BCS title game. The commercialization of the enterprise extends to the confetti raining down on the victory celebration while NCAA operatives provide exclusive championship merchandise to the players -- merchandise that is immediately for sale on the NCAA's website and elsewhere. After scenes and practices like that, the NCAA expects us to believe that it knows what college athletics are really about?

The conclusion is inescapable. The NCAA has become the Kardashians. But, to their credit, at least the Kardashians spare us all of the moralizing, and allow Kim and Kris to share in the money they are able to generate for themselves and those around her. At least the Kardashians are honest about it. Sadly, the NCAA is not.