NCAA Emails Signal Dissension Among Administrators and School Officials

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 20th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Criticizing the NCAA’s amateur-related restrictions and regulations is a trend long since adopted by a sizable majority of the college sports viewing public. The main point of contention, or so it seems, is the organization’s ability to negotiate and license lucrative media rights deals while expressly denying its constituents – the student-athletes themselves and the marketable product their competition creates – a slice of the financial pie. Each and every violation of that fundamental principle, from textbook impermissible benefits scandals to menacing third-party influencers to rogue boosters, amplifies the national discussion. It’s gotten to the point where supporting the NCAA’s legislative agenda draws widespread skepticism and angst, as if the maintenance of amateurism has evolved into a contrarian viewpoint. It wasn’t long ago that the discussion proceeded in reverse, with the now-in vogue free-market position marginalized by a prevailing consensus that the extant system, such as it is, works. As the discourse challenging the underlying structure that defines intercollegiate athletics gained new levels of credibility and authority, it was fair to suspect the NCAA would eventually need to defend its heavily scrutinized system in not only the court of public opinion, but a court of law. Sure enough, a class-action lawsuit led by former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon has challenged those bedrock principles forbidding student-athletes from receiving paid compensation above the school-funded assistance provided by athletic scholarships, otherwise known as grant-in-aids.

The internal disagreements over the NCAA’s concept of amateurism could help advance O’Bannon’s suit against the organization (Photo credit: Isaac Brekken/AP Photo).

The legal dispute is nothing new; O’Bannon initially raised his grievances in 2009. His case, which is scheduled to go on trial in early 2014, has only intensified the public indictment of NCAA policy. In the meantime, while it prepares to face the landmark test case that could dismantle its authoritative standing, the NCAA may need to reconcile its moral and philosophical mission internally. That’s the impression given by ESPN Outside the Lines reporter Tom Farrey’s article revealing in-house dissension over the legitimacy of the NCAA’s treatment of its student-athletes. Email correspondence between school administrators and NCAA officials contains hard evidence of high-ranking authorititative figures harboring substantial misgivings over the basic philosophy upon which the student-athlete ruling system operates. For example, Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman offers scathing criticism of the student-athlete’s absence within the financial component of the NCAA’s media rights and licensing negotiations.

“This whole area of name and likeness and the NCAA is a disaster leading to catastrophe as far as I can tell,” wrote Perlman, a former member of the NCAA Board of Directors and law professor specializing in intellectual property. “I’m still trying to figure out by what authority the NCAA licenses these rights to the game makers and others. I looked at what our student athletes sign by way of waiver and it doesn’t come close”

Coming from a university chancellor, that’s heady stuff. But Perlman’s perspective transcends the educational realm. As a former member of the NCAA board of directors and an IP law professor, a field that concerns the sort of moral and ethical disputes underpinning the NCAA’s ongoing legal battle, Perlman’s opinion is informed by experience. NCAA senior policy adviser Wallace Renfro went further, suggesting the NCAA do away altogether with the term “student-athlete”, preferring instead the more generic “student.” The article is well worth your read – it includes detailed discussion of separate legal entanglements involving the Collegiate Licensing Corporation and the NCAA’s portrayal of student-athlete likenesses in video games. But the major takeaway is that the public piling on against NCAA protocol is not limited to newspaper Op-Eds, nor is the discourse being received with negligence from ruling body officials. A storm is coming, and it threatens to unravel the structure that’s so long governed (or attempted to govern) college athletics. Whatever your opinion on the NCAA’s doctrinal values – whether you’re staunchly opposed to its guidelines, or endorse a traditionalist viewpoint ruing the day when student-athletes can receive, exchange and engage in financial negotiations during their time on campus, or something in the middle – the current system is reaching a critical juncture. The legal proceedings will no doubt unearth in greater detail the internal disagreement, insofar as it exists, over the NCAA’s authoritative model. The aforementioned emails are just the tip of the iceberg; we have a long way to go, with plenty of administrative opinion forthcoming as the case unfolds.

What’s clear is that O’Bannon’s lawsuit is rattling the NCAA’s previously unassailable administrative perch – the impenetrable fortress of bureaucratic wisdom in Indianapolis – to its very core. The debate on amateurism has officially entered the legal arena, and the old guard, those defending the existing system, have yet to consolidate their viewpoint. The procured emails offer a dialed-in portrait of the extent to which the NCAA’s mandate is under fire, but we should gain a greater perspective as discovery continues in the coming months. The conversations and discussions the O’Bannon lawsuit uncovers should be fascinating to observe.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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