A Year of Thought: 2011

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In , freshman players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than their upperclassman teammates. Schools that violated this code would be expelled from NCAA membership and thus exiled from competitive sports. This bold effort flopped. Colleges balked at imposing such a drastic penalty on each other, and the Sanity Code was repealed within a few years. In , the NCAA seized upon a serendipitous set of events to gain control of intercollegiate sports.

First, the organization hired a young college dropout named Walter Byers as executive director. A journalist who was not yet 30 years old, he was an appropriately inauspicious choice for the vaguely defined new post. He wore cowboy boots and a toupee. He shunned personal contact, obsessed over details, and proved himself a bureaucratic master of pervasive, anonymous intimidation.

Although discharged from the Army during World War II for defective vision, Byers was able to see an opportunity in two contemporaneous scandals. In one, the tiny College of William and Mary, aspiring to challenge football powers Oklahoma and Ohio State, was found to be counterfeiting grades to keep conspicuously pampered players eligible. But Byers managed to impanel a small infractions board to set penalties without waiting for a full convention of NCAA schools, which would have been inclined toward forgiveness.

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Then he lobbied a University of Kentucky dean—A. His gambit succeeded when Kirwan reluctantly accepted a landmark precedent: the Kentucky basketball team would be suspended for the entire —53 season. Its legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, fumed for a year in limbo. At the same time, a colossal misperception gave Byers leverage to mine gold. Amazingly in retrospect, most colleges and marketing experts considered the advent of television a dire threat to sports.

Studies found that broadcasts reduced live attendance, and therefore gate receipts, because some customers preferred to watch at home for free. Nobody could yet imagine the revenue bonanza that television represented. All but two schools quickly complied. The University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame protested the order to break contracts for home-game television broadcasts, claiming the right to make their own decisions.

Byers objected that such exceptions would invite disaster. The conflict escalated. Byers brandished penalties for games televised without approval. Penn contemplated seeking antitrust protection through the courts. Byers issued a contamination notice, informing any opponent scheduled to play Penn that it would be punished for showing up to compete. Byers won. Penn folded in part because its president, the perennial White House contender Harold Stassen, wanted to mend relations with fellow schools in the emerging Ivy League, which would be formalized in When Notre Dame also surrendered, Byers conducted exclusive negotiations with the new television networks on behalf of every college team.

Joe Rauh Jr. Byers and Rauh selected a few teams for television exposure, excluding the rest. Byers routed all contractual proceeds through his office. He floated the idea that, to fund an NCAA infrastructure, his organization should take a 60 percent cut; he accepted 12 percent that season.

For later contracts, as the size of television revenues grew exponentially, he backed down to 5 percent. Only one year into his job, Byers had secured enough power and money to regulate all of college sports. The NFL got its antitrust exemption. But the big football powers grumbled about the portion of the television revenue diverted to nearly a thousand NCAA member schools that lacked major athletic programs.

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They chafed against cost-cutting measures—such as restrictions on team size—designed to help smaller schools. Byers faced a rude internal revolt.

But this time the universities of Georgia and Oklahoma responded with an antitrust suit. In the landmark NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma decision, the U. Coaches and administrators no longer had to share the revenue generated by their athletes with smaller schools outside the football consortium. A few years earlier, this blow might have financially crippled the NCAA—but a rising tide of money from basketball concealed the structural damage of the Regents decision.

During the s, income from the March Madness college basketball tournament, paid directly by the television networks to the NCAA, grew tenfold. The windfall covered—and then far exceeded—what the organization had lost from football.

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Still, Byers never forgave his former deputy Chuck Neinas for leading the rebel consortium. After retiring in , Byers let slip his suppressed fury that the ingrate football conferences, having robbed the NCAA of television revenue, still expected it to enforce amateurism rules and police every leak of funds to college players.

Years later, as we will see, lawyers would seize upon his words to do battle with the NCAA.

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News stories revealed that schools went to extraordinary measures to keep academically incompetent athletes eligible for competition, and would vie for the most-sought-after high-school players by proffering under-the-table payments. By , as the size of NCAA headquarters increased yet again with a ,square-foot expansion, a third Knight Commission was groping blindly for a hold on independent college-athletic conferences that were behaving more like sovereign pro leagues than confederations of universities. And still more money continued to flow into NCAA coffers.

Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play which might understate their athletic obligations , nor were they just athletes in college which might imply they were professionals. That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies.

When Waldrep regained consciousness, Bear Bryant, the storied Crimson Tide coach, was standing over his hospital bed. Waldrep was paralyzed: he had lost all movement and feeling below his neck. After nine months of paying his medical bills, Texas Christian refused to pay any more, so the Waldrep family coped for years on dwindling charity.

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He also, through heroic rehabilitation efforts, recovered feeling in his arms, and eventually learned to drive a specially rigged van. Clearly, TCU had provided football players with equipment for the job, as a typical employer would—but did the university pay wages, withhold income taxes on his financial aid, or control work conditions and performance?

This game is always a highlight of the football season because of the historic rivalry between the two schools, and the edition had enormous significance, pitting the defending national champion Crimson Tide against the undefeated Tigers, who were aiming for their first championship since I expected excited fans; what I encountered was the throbbing heart of college sports.

The game, perhaps the most exciting of the season, was unbearably tense, with Auburn coming from way behind to win 28—27, all but assuring that it would go on to play for the national championship. This left Newton conveniently eligible for the Southeastern Conference championship game and for the postseason BCS championship bowl. For the NCAA, prudence meant honoring public demand. NCAA v. It is rich but insecure. The athletes, and the league officials, are acutely aware of this extraordinary arrangement.

William Friday, the former North Carolina president, recalls being yanked from one Knight Commission meeting and sworn to secrecy about what might happen if a certain team made the NCAA championship basketball game. Skeptics doubted such a diabolical plot. These were college kids—unlikely to second-guess their coaches, let alone forfeit the dream of a championship.

Still, it was unnerving to contemplate what hung on the consent of a few young volunteers: several hundred million dollars in television revenue, countless livelihoods, the NCAA budget, and subsidies for sports at more than 1, schools. Cognizant of its precarious financial base, the NCAA has in recent years begun to pursue new sources of revenue.

Video-game technology also allows nostalgic fans to relive and even participate in classic moments of NCAA Basketball. All of this money ultimately derives from the college athletes whose likenesses are shown in the films or video games.