The more NCAA president Mark Emmert drones on about preserving the integrity of college sports, the more I hear the voice of the late Avery Brundage.
It’s not a reassuring sound.
Brundage was president of the International Olympic Committee between 1936 and 1972. He tolerated the horrific ascent of Nazi Germany, generally opposed women competing in the Games, and remained steadfast his belief that providing any kind of compensation to athletes would destroy the Olympic movement.
In his final speech as IOC president, Brundage doubled down on dinosaur rhetoric.
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“There are only two kinds of competitors,” he insisted. “Those free and independent individuals who are interested in sports for sports sake, and those in sports for financial reasons. Olympic glory is for amateurs.”
Brundage was born in Detroit and raised in Chicago, but a case could be made he came out of a cave. Still, Brundage reflected the backwards thinking of an organization that stripped Jim Thorpe of his 1912 gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon because he participated in a semipro baseball league during his summer break from college.
Because Brundage resisted efforts to return the medals to Thorpe — “ignorance is no excuse,” the caveman said — it wasn’t until 1983, 30 years after Thorpe’s death, that the IOC acknowledged he was worthy of the medals, if not inclusion in the official Olympic record book.
So how does any of this relate to Emmert, the Fife native and University of Washington graduate who went on to serve as president of the school? It relates to his rocked-ribbed, tone-deaf insistence that allowing athletes some piece of the economic pie will poison college sports.
Defending the NCAA during the 2014 lawsuit case filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, Emmert warned that allowing commercial opportunities for college players would turn them into corporate shills.
“They’re no longer a student athlete,” he said on the witness stand. “They’re no longer part of the academic environment. They’re there not advocationally but vocationally ... to make a living.”
Got it. In the world according to Emmert, which is closer to 1918 than 2018, loosening rules that prohibit college athletes from endorsing an automobile agency or a plumbing company will detach them from the “academic environment.” I’m presuming this is the same academic environment basketball players miss while making midweek road trips to games that tip off at 9 p.m. on the other side of the country.
Paying college athletes is less a moral quandary than a practical one: Schools belonging to a power conference typically participate in 15-20 sports. Arranging an equitable distribution plan for everybody under the tent is impossible. Heck, arranging an equitable distribution plan for everybody on the football team is impossible.
But arranging a payment plan for a player whose number is stitched on the back of a jersey selling for $75 at the campus book store, that is not impossible. Allowing a player to charge a fee for appearing at a local business’ promotional event, that is not impossible.
What’s impossible, it appears, is NCAA’s progression into the 21st century under Emmert. Last week, when Yahoo! Sports broke the news that a corrupt sports agency had infiltrated college basketball, Emmert’s first response was to decline comment.
He finally crafted a prepared statement.
“The allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America,” Emmert’s statement began. “Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They really are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”
Hurray to all those major college basketball coaches — I suspect there’s two or three of them — who play by the rules. But Emmert’s plan to fix systematic failures with the creation of a commission overseen by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is the equivalent of using mouse traps to eradicate a basement rat infestation.
The rats aren’t going away, and the slimy agents paid to steer top high-school recruits to prominent basketball programs are not going away. Talk tough if you want, but it’s just that: Talk.
A more reasonable method of cleaning up college basketball will be to turn the page that ushers in a new chapter. Enough, please, with the baloney about tethering student athletes to an academic environment. Prospective first-round NBA draft choices, the one-and-done guys, do not enroll in college as students. They enroll in college as apprentices majoring in basketball.
If the idea is to keep sleazy creeps out of the mix, let the players profit from over-the-table endorsement opportunities. Let them seek advice from certified sports agents.
The Winter Olympics that concluded Sunday would have been Brundage’s worst nightmare: Athletes aligned with corporate sponsors waving flags and embracing each other after the competition, regarding foes as friends, reveling in their Olympic glory.
Abandoning the archaic premise of amateurism hasn’t ruined the Olympics. On that distant day Emmert manages to extract himself from the 100-ton sand dune smothering him, he’ll see that abandoning amateurism won’t be the ruination of college basketball, either.
Embrace reality, dude. Move forward. The coast is clear.
Avery Brundage is dead.