It’s Time To Disrupt The NCAA

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This article was inspired by Patrick Hruby’s recent piece, published in Vice Sports. What follows is written as a preamble to that article. 

I know two things, for sure, about the nature of organizations.

Organizations come first, not the people they presumably serves. Self-interest prevails.

Big change comes from the organizational fringe or from the outside, hardly ever from the organizational center. The center protects the status quo.

Time passes. Administrators come and go. Governance rotates. These two principles persist (with few exceptions) across spheres, sectors, and places.

It’s an inside (from the organization) – out (to the public) way of doing business.

What I’ve just described applies to major college sports, too—revenue-producing sports, specifically.

Courtesy: NewsBusters

Major universities though the NCAA collude to protect the model. Sure, they make changes over time, but that change is protective. Give a little now (e.g., provide athletes with cost-of-living stipends) to avoid losing control.

While this formula could be very well be interpreted as “good business,” it’s not. It’s not because we shouldn’t be talking this way about a social institution. And colleges and universities are just that–social institutions–public schools especially.

But we talk this way because of a thing called goal displacement, which is “the tendency of organizations to substitute alternate goals for the goals the organization was established to serve.” Goal displacement is the only way to describe a higher education system in America where – in most states – the highest paid public official is either the head football or basketball coach.

So when college sports officials talk about making “big changes,” know that the change they talk about doesn’t “disrupt the system” (distruption is a popular phrase in organizational circles these days). The change they prefer protects the system from being disrupted.

Courtesy: Moore at Work

To disrupt means to destablize the status quo. It happens mostly because stakeholders get tired of being screwed by the system that exists–the system that organizational insiders protect.

Those who feel marginalized, if not excluded, agitate for change. They try to change the system (e.g., U.S. civil rights movement) or they say “Enough!” and walk away (e.g., U.S. independence).

I’m not saying that insiders can’t disrupt the system. It just doesn’t happen very often, and it’s extraordinary when it does.

What they do is mostly fix what’s broken (reform) and introduce something new (innovate). Let’s not call either “disruption” unless it involves blowing up the prevailing model–for whatever reason–and replacing it with something else.

Agitators HAVE tried to blow up the NCAA system but, so far, their efforts haven’t proven to be successful — despite lawsuits filed, unionizing efforts undertaken, etc. America’s college sports model prevails in tact.

Why? The universities and the NCAA fight back. Hard.

Is there a way to disrupt that model? Who knows for sure, but my interest was piqued recently when I read about an initiative that’s in the formative stages.

The concept: create a pay-for-play league made up of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

For background on the concept—including an analysis of what it would take and how it might work—read Patrick Hruby’s article published in Vice Sports. Read a summary of the concept here. Watch a video about the concept at the end of this article.

My purpose here is to offer my perspective on why I believe it’s a plausible idea.

The starting point is to ask fundamental questions associated with organizing for change: Who benefits from the system that exists currently? Who loses?

Put another way: Who would want the system to change and why?

-The Center for the Study of Race and Gender at the University of Pennsylvania reports a huge disparity between the percent of African-American men enrolled nationally as undergraduates (<3%) vis-à-vis the percent of Black men who comprise football (56%) and basketball (61%) teams.

The Institute for Racial Diversity in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida reports that African-Americans are grossly underrepresented as head coaches and in athletics administration. African-American coaches represent less than 10% of all coaches in each of the NCAA divisions, and the composition of athletics administration nationally is overwhelmingly white (85%+). “College sport … had the lowest grade for racial hiring practices and gender hiring practices among all of the college and professional sports,” the Institute declared.

A lot of fans accept this system as is. A lot don’t think about it–either much or at all. Others simply don’t care. Some feel guilt, but not enough guilt to change either their sports attitudes or sports behaviors.

Courtesy: Silver Screen and Roll

It’s certainly possible to defend the system, too, especially if fans buy into what’s called a neoliberal philosophy. That philosophy values competition above all else.

In the neoliberal view of major college sports, copious benefits await those who are proficient at sports. Lonzo Ball benefits from the system because he demonstrated basketball proficiency at UCLA. Ronnie Jones (ficticious name) doesn’t because he was 11th man on the basketball team at EastSouthCentral State.

College players are commodities, after all, with values set in the marketplace. Major college sports is a market system. And just like any market system, commodity values vary. There are winners and losers.

That’s one view.

Another view, the progressive view, sees the system differently. It starts by asking: Who’s playing? Without the large-scale participation of young Black men, neither major college football nor major college basketball would be what it is today. For proof watch any game and see who’s on the field or court.

The reality is that the current system requires the participation of large numbers of young Black men, players who serve as primary laborers. The system rewards a handful of these players with fame and riches, and it dangles that possibility as an enticement to participate.

But while few of those laborers strike it rich, loads of White elites benefit consistently from their labor. Universities are run mostly by White folks. ADs are mostly White folks. Head coaches are mostly White folks. Athletic staff members–from communicators/PR, to fund raising, to trainers, to all other athletic staff members are mostly White folks. Want proof?  Just do what I did: go to your school and look through the pictures of all the folks who are on the athletics payroll. They’re likely to be mostly White.

As I and others have written previously the major college system in America today has elements of the 19th Century plantation system.

Want more of what I consider to be a disgraceful circumstance? The who wins/who loses equation applies not only to people, it applies to higher education institutions, too.

-Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—schools that were created to counter segregation in higher education—do not enjoy the same status as do major American sports-playing universities. Schools like Grambling, South Carolina State, and Florida A&M are in the college athletic underbelly. Schools like Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Southern Cal are on top.

-HBCU’s don’t secure the best black athletes nationally, either. Lonzo matriculated at UCLA, not Southern. He, like just about every major recruit, plays at a Power 5 or other major school.

-HBCU’s don’t enjoy large TV and other media contracts. Those arrangements favor Power 5 and other major schools.

The NCAA is a membership organization that exists to establish and sustain rules that favor what it sees as important. And what it sees as important is influenced significantly by the needs and preferences of its most powerful conferences and schools—the Power 5 Conferences and their 60+ schools, especially.

HBCUs are NCAA members, but their interests are rarely at the center of the NCAA’s agenda when it comes to who benefits from the billions of dollars that flow from sports.

Courtesy: VICE Sports

It really is about money and–to no surprise, given what we’ve discussed here–most of the big money is bounded and controlled.

USAToday follows the money trail annually and just published it’s analysis for 2016. Every year it’s the same story: “the big boys” make and spend a ton of money. Everybody else scrapes by–largely by charging students’ fees and transferring university general funds to athletics.

A school like Texas (Power 5) is rich. A school like North Carolina A&T (HBCU) scrapes by.

So what would you do if you were in charge at a HBCU school?

We know from eons of organizing experience that marginalization and exclusion are powerful incentives for change – organizing to disrupt the system. If the system excludes you–and others like you–then why not get together to redefine rules so that more benefits flow your way?

You could protest the NCAA and push for change. The National Association of Black Colleges and Universities is doing that in an initiative called, “Operation Fair Play.” Learn more in the video below.

But it’s a good bet that the NCAA won’t budge. HBCUs have neither clout nor the numbers to pass favorable reforms. Change would come via free will–of big schools making change because they see it as the right way to go. The odds of that happening are slim and more likely none.

An alternative is to withdraw from the NCAA. Quit. Create a separate conference. Set new rules.

Courttesy: HBCU Sports

But how do you attract players that way? You can do it by offering something “the big boys” don’t: A SALARY. Offer more than ‘fringe benefits’–scholarships, room and board, and iving allowances. Pay athletes for their services. Make them employees.

They will be athletes first, students, second. That’s what they are now, really (research has shown that to be a reasonable assertion). Just make the relationship explicit and formal.

Yes, the approach I’ve outlined is a subversion of higher education. But at least it will benefit more athletes, not just some. It will reduce abuse, make the system more just, and well … the threat of doing it might get the NCAA ‘off the schneid,” forcing the Association to evolve its model so that it’s more just and equitable.

I know, I know: none of this has anything to do with the fundamental purpose of higher education. But that horse left the barn long ago.


About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.

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