Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
A year after signing a contract extension that few could believe he had been offered, NCAA president Mark Emmert is “stepping down” — to use the official parlance for “canned three years ahead of schedule.” Those who cover college sports are, rightly, using the opportunity to blast his tenure, reciting the litany of issues he failed to address until it was absolutely necessary, and then, in that moment, abdicating responsibility completely.
Essentially, anyone with a few brain cells to rub together could see the problems with the NCAA’s fiercely defended “student-athlete” model — the corruption and exploitation and brazen profiteering it enabled, and how unsustainable it was rapidly becoming. Emmert actually did as well, as Andy Staples outlined in a thoughtful column for The Athletic. The problem is he seemingly lacked both the gumption and the leadership skills to do anything about it, deferring to conferences, state governments, the national government, international governing bodies, and basically anyone else imaginable. Time after time, the NCAA was asked to answer for its core flaws, and all Emmert did was deflect.
Now, in a moment when even those who formerly might have gone to bat for the myth of the so-called “student-athlete” finally acknowledge that the fundamental structure of college sports is irreparably broken, Emmert’s only strategy — delay and deny — had outlived its usefulness. Without him, though, the sorry state of the organization itself is even clearer. “What is the point of the NCAA?” is a question we have asked repeatedly in this column. They organize championships, and they can’t even do that right; for everything else, they offer guidelines that they either can’t or won’t enforce.
Those with power see the end of the line. “I can certainly see a case for there not being the NCAA in its current structure going forward,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said after Emmert’s departure was announced. “We’re either going to change or die,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said earlier this year — and one thing the NCAA has not historically been great at is change. Allegedly, the NCAA’s transformation committee is confirming a slew of “radical” (lol) changes to the organization soon, but the proposed shifts don’t rectify either the fact that athletes are still not directly compensated for their labor and cannot unionize, or the fact that the gap between the powerhouses and small schools is just growing wider and wider (a theme that surely is familiar to anyone…living in America).
If a hard break in Division I is “inevitable,” as Notre Dame’s athletic director put it last week, why keep dancing around the issues? Why try to find another figurehead to earn $2.9 million dollars a year when the literal best they would be able to do is a slightly more thoughtful version of Emmert’s constant deflection?
For all Emmert’s gaffes, for all of his utter uselessness, the NCAA’s problem is not its vacuum of leadership (although that probably didn’t help). Its problem is that the whole idea it was designed around has been bunk from the very beginning. Watch one (1) movie about college football from the 1930s (there are dozens). Here’s a sample synopsis: “A college football star rebels against the exploitation of the game and its players.” That’s Saturday’s Heroes, from 1937. Not only are college sports’ issues about a century old, the news of those problems has been around for just as long. The intrinsic unfairness has never been a secret.
So what are we looking to redeem? Who could possibly save something that has been so far gone for so long? Blow the whole thing up, and make way for something new — something that has to be at least a little more just.