The NCAA Is Trying To Pass The Buck

With a new constitution, the largest organization in American sports is trying to abdicate some responsibility as its amateurist raison d’etre comes under fire.

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.

The big question about the NCAA in 2022 is, “Why bother?” We’ve explored this question in the column, mostly in relation to the organization’s totally toothless pandemic response and disgraceful failure to prevent and punish sexual violence committed within collegiate athletics departments. The NCAA itself seems to be wondering the same thing, as court cases continue to threaten their organizing principle: an exclusive monopoly on the unpaid labor of college athletes. Its new constitution, approved a few weeks ago, is literally and figuratively smaller — less than half as long as its 43-page predecessor, and with a much more vague scope.

College athletes are still explicitly limited from being paid for their play, but other hard questions about the future of the organization are deferred to each division, with Division I being given the unenviable task of how to provide rules for 350 schools whose athletic departments range in budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. The only really timely information was an updated protocol on transgender athlete participation, modeled on international regulations — unfortunately, those were widely deemed inadequate, even without the consideration of how changing rules on who can participate in the middle of the school year might throw some athletes’ lives into chaos. 

“Without the rest of us,” said Hiram Chodosh, the president of Claremont McKenna College, “it may just start to look like a commercial enterprise.” 

The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke put one of the central problems with the revised constitution quite neatly back in November: “Who will take on the NCAA’s former role of enforcing rules, which appears to be the ‘jump ball’ that no one is eager to grab?” Even those who are part of the NCAA were asking what the point of it all was. As Betsy Mitchell, athletic director at Cal Tech, put it, “Why are we still trying to stick together?” “Without the rest of us,” said Hiram Chodosh, the president of Claremont McKenna College, “it may just start to look like a commercial enterprise.” 

The fact that, as the New York Times explained, he put it “wryly,” is exactly the point. This is just another step in the protracted dance around what matters, which is the plight of the mostly Black athletes who are annually chewed up and spit out by the recruiting and coaching processes at extremely wealthy programs that are subject to minimal regulation and against which they have almost no recourse or protection. The NCAA is trying to back out of the room slowly, letting Division I and likely Power Five schools sort out the mess they so eagerly made.

The NCAA not wanting the responsibility that comes with as much power as it has is not new; a 1940 Hartford Courant headline, for example, read “College Athletics Are In The Hands Of Heads Of Schools; New NCAA Constitution Not Designed To Create Super Organization.” But currently they have a lot of power and make a lot of money and, as evidenced by its woefully unfair administration of the 2021 women’s college basketball tournament and the ensuing investigation, they live up to their minimal attendant responsibilities extremely poorly.

Maybe the “Division I Transformation Committee” will crack the code of providing actual governance that treats athletes fairly and makes them safer; more likely, though, they’ll continue to pass the buck to conferences and then on down to schools, until someone who doesn’t stand to make a mint off the maintenance of the status quo and has the power to make a difference steps in.