NCAA deserves heat, but it’s not alone
Hopefully, everyone outside the NCAA is no longer under the illusion of laborers for multi-billion dollar enterprises being something other than employees. A torrent of ill will combined with the overdue realization of reality has hit the NCAA. Since The Atlantic published historian Taylor Branch’s epic 14,500-word takedown of the organization two years ago, it’s been a parade against the NCAA charade. Yet for all the deserved pariah-making of the NCAA, targeting that body solely is simplifying more complex concerns.
A more recent piece in The Atlantic is indicative of this oversimplification. Jessica Luther’s column from last week entitled “‘We Felt Like We Were Above the Law’: How the NCAA Endangers Women” addresses the sorely under-analyzed topic of sexism and the gendered power dynamics in college football. The piece calls attention to the segment of Sports Illustrated’s (much-maligned) Oklahoma State series about “Orange Pride,” the hostess group that seemed mainly to serve as an escort service for recruits.
As Luther explains, the idea of college females provided as sexual incentives for prized prospects to attend a university has become normalized in a false culture of amateurism promoted by the NCAA. Its focus, like most other pieces one will find in the media, hones in specifically on college sports’ governing body. Luther posits that the NCAA is responsible for a culture of endangering women, and they are responsible for reforming it.
Playing the NCAA-as-bad-guy card is effective when the organization’s credibility tumbles toward Congressional levels. Yet it is precisely such fading power and respect that leaves Luther’s conclusion wanting.
The real brokers of power in college football are not the writers of bylaws and officials of investigation. They are the multimillionaire conference commissioners and television executives shaping the relentlessly capitalistic enterprise that college football has become—or already has been for a while and to which we have only recently opened our eyes.
Most of all, they are the multimillionaire coaches who make their mark in the living rooms of recruits, on the sparkling practice fields of major-conference schools and at the top of annual salary lists at their respective universities.
If you follow the money, you follow the motive of major college sports. The coaches will do what it takes to win, and they will skirt NCAA rules that interfere. Sports are touted as a developmental space for leadership, teamwork and discipline, but lionized coaches teach these tools as they apply to putting points on the board and stopping the opposing team from doing so.
Story after story and anecdote after anecdote position coaches as institutional paternalists, invested more in the preservation or elevation of program or personal images than in the humanistic development of the young men on their teams from year to year.
Indeed, the NCAA is largely responsible for fostering that culture when the discrepancy between earnings for head coaches and players is [insert multimillion-dollar amount and subtract by zero]. But compensating athletes will not magically transform the power dynamics. For most prospective Division I football players, the choice of a university will still be viewed as the pearly gateway to a future of abundantly more promise and opportunity. Revered coaches like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Les Miles will still be St. Peter to the perceived big-time football heaven. They will maintain leverage and influence over young men who are really still impressionable teenagers.
But when heaven has multiple gateways in the forms of multiple universities, the St. Peters compete with each other, and it’s naive to believe the battles will suddenly become more pious because of new NCAA bylaws. Even if hostess programs are banned in writing, a gendered culture of women as incentives for choosing a school or prizes for achieving athletic glory will persist.
Three years ago, University of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly cracked a joke to Chicago Tribune reporters calling about the suicide of an alleged sexual assault victim, then allowed his accused athletes (one from a separate alleged incident) to play in last year’s national championship game. In many a college football context, the women are good for getting the athletes to that school but a disregard-able nuisance for teams on the way to victory.
Luther is correct that the NCAA needs new regulations, but the NCAA is not the sole bearer of responsibility, nor should it be the sole target of scorn. Though Luther and many commentators most likely already understand that, armchair NCAA critics must as well—not only in the context of gender issues but applied to all the power dynamics that shape profit-making college sports.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended from it’s original publication following further review of the allegations against University of Notre Dame athletes.