The NCAA Is Corrupt and Congress Needs to Do Something About It

It’s time for Congress to conduct serious hearings into NCAA corruption and the misuse of college athletes for profit.

Syracuse Orange C.J. Fair defends Connecticut Huskies Shabazz Napier in the first half at the NCAA Big East Basketball Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 8, 2012. 
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
April 8, 2014, 4 p.m.

Not sur­pris­ingly, I was go­ing to write this week about the Mc­Cutcheon de­cision, des­pite my feel­ing a bit of the old saw that of­ten gets raised dur­ing toasts: “Everything has been said, but not every­body has said it.” I will still write about what is an enorm­ously con­sequen­tial and dis­astrous cam­paign fin­ance de­cision, craf­ted by a thor­oughly disin­genu­ous Su­preme Court chief justice — I do have something to add. But Shabazz Napi­er pushed me in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion right now.

For those liv­ing on an­oth­er plan­et who do not know who Shabazz Napi­er is, he is the enorm­ously gif­ted guard for the Uni­versity of Con­necti­c­ut who led his team to an­oth­er na­tion­al bas­ket­ball cham­pi­on­ship Monday night. But be­fore that, Napi­er spoke to the Con­necti­c­ut Mir­ror about the North­west­ern Uni­versity ath­letes’ at­tempt to cre­ate a uni­on, and said the ath­let­ic schol­ar­ship is the only com­pens­a­tion al­lowed by the NCAA. “At the end of the day, that doesn’t cov­er everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food and some­times money is needed,” he said. “There are hungry nights that I go to bed and I am starving. So something can change, something should change.”

Wow. It turns out that NCAA rules al­low in­sti­tu­tions to provide one meal a day to ath­letes, along with snacks. That merely un­der­scores how tilted col­lege ath­let­ics are to­ward the in­sti­tu­tions and away from the ath­letes — at least those shap­ing the big-money sports like foot­ball and bas­ket­ball — and how much change is needed, es­pe­cially at the NCAA, which is thor­oughly cor­rupt from the top down.

A couple of weeks ago, the usu­ally as­tute Wash­ing­ton Post sports colum­nist Sally Jen­kins wrote dis­dain­fully of the move to­ward a uni­on, say­ing ath­letes are “highly priv­ileged schol­ar­ship win­ners who get a lot of valu­able stuff for free. This in­cludes first-rate train­ing in the habits of high achieve­ment, cool gear, un­lim­ited aca­dem­ic tu­tor­ing for gratis, and world-class med­ic­al care that no one else has ac­cess to.” Ap­par­ently it also in­cludes star­va­tion di­ets for poor kids who come to col­lege without any money. And the “un­lim­ited aca­dem­ic tu­tor­ing” ap­par­ently led to the 8 per­cent gradu­ation rate for these priv­ileged ath­letes at UConn, which ac­tu­ally got the pro­gram sus­pen­ded a year ago be­cause the rate was so abysmal, and led no doubt to won­der­ful aca­dem­ic pre­par­a­tion for the “one and out” fresh­man class who have made many mil­lions of dol­lars for Ken­tucky coach John Cali­pari. Not to men­tion the pathet­ic one-para­graph “re­search pa­per” writ­ten by a Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina ath­lete that was all over Twit­ter a few weeks ago.

Shabazz Napi­er is a role mod­el who stayed for four years and will pre­sum­ably push up UConn’s gradu­ation rate from the truly pathet­ic to the barely ac­cept­able. And, des­pite his 6-foot-1-inch height, his con­sum­mate skills as a ball hand­ler and field gen­er­al will likely make him a rich man in pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball. But the fact is, most of those play­ing col­lege bas­ket­ball or foot­ball will not make mil­lions in the pros, and many will not gradu­ate with the skills and train­ing that a col­lege edu­ca­tion should provide for entry in­to the work­force. These young people are far more among the ex­ploited than they are among the “highly priv­ileged” get­ting won­der­ful be­ne­fits for the work they put in.

When NCAA Pres­id­ent Mark Em­mert talks pi­ously of “stu­dent-ath­letes,” it is ludicrous. There are many genu­ine stu­dent-ath­letes, es­pe­cially in sports like soc­cer, crew, ten­nis, and lacrosse, who don’t gen­er­ate mil­lions in rev­en­ue for their schools and the NCAA. And there are cer­tainly stu­dent-ath­letes among the foot­ball and bas­ket­ball play­ers as well. But large num­bers of them are ath­letes who are des­ig­nated as stu­dents yet who nev­er gradu­ate, and in many cases they leave without ba­sic skills. The poor ones can starve, yes, while the schools and Em­mert and his col­leagues make many mil­lions off their tal­ents.

Joe Nocera, the es­tim­able colum­nist for The New York Times who is no rad­ic­al, has writ­ten many columns point­ing out the ut­ter cor­rup­tion at the top of the NCAA, which also acts im­per­i­ously and has no ac­count­ab­il­ity for its rul­ings on eli­gib­il­ity for in­di­vidu­al ath­letes. It is past time to provide some due pro­cess and to provide some reas­on­able com­pens­a­tion — in­clud­ing al­low­ing ath­letes to get the money from use of their names and like­nesses and for their auto­graphs (something even Jen­kins, to her cred­it, re­com­mends).

Why am I writ­ing about this in a column called Wash­ing­ton In­side Out? A few years ago, Reps. Henry Wax­man and Tom Dav­is held high-pro­file hear­ings on drug use in sports, hear­ings that res­ul­ted in the dis­grace of Ro­ger Clem­ens, among oth­ers. I got a lot of calls from re­port­ers at the time ask­ing why Con­gress was stick­ing its nose in­to an is­sue like this one — was it just for cheap pub­li­city? I re­spon­ded that it was well with­in Con­gress’s pur­view; the in­sti­tu­tion is, in the term of the late, great re­port­er Neil McNeil, “the Grand In­quest of the Na­tion.” And the fact is that the Wax­man-Dav­is hear­ings — a mod­el, by the way, of bi­par­tis­an in­vest­ig­a­tions that Dar­rell Issa should study — helped migh­tily to trig­ger the strong back­lash against the use of per­form­ance-en­han­cing drugs, clean­ing up pro­fes­sion­al sports and send­ing a strong sig­nal to so­ci­ety.

Call­ing on Con­gress: It is time for prob­ing hear­ings in­to cor­rup­tion at the NCAA and the ser­i­ous mis­use of col­lege ath­let­ics and col­lege ath­letes by ma­jor edu­ca­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions for their own profit. Haul up Mark Em­mert, a pas­sel of col­lege pres­id­ents and ath­let­ic dir­ect­ors, Shabazz Napi­er and oth­er cur­rent and former ath­letes who have been ex­ploited by the sys­tem, and let the chips fall where they may.

I love March Mad­ness. There is no oth­er sport­ing event that cap­tures the ima­gin­a­tion of a wider range of Amer­ic­ans, in­clud­ing those who oth­er­wise have no in­terest in sports. The drama, game after game, week after week, as un­der­dogs beat fa­vor­ites and brack­ets get turned up­side down, is re­mark­able. The NCAA has done a bril­liant job cre­at­ing it and mar­ket­ing it. But that does not ex­cuse its oth­er, deep flaws. They need to be un­covered in a new Grand In­quest — and re­formed. 

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