Mark Emmert gave an extended media interview this week during which he came up with the novel idea that maybe the NCAA should stop colluding around economic matters. Eureka, the NCAA is a cartel! Perhaps, he seemed to discover, it would be better to leave a lot of decisions up to the conferences and the schools, or even to individual sports.
If college sports were severed from their educational pretension and were concerned only about commercial success, then the Emmert epiphany might be an interesting insight. What Emmert seems to have forgotten about in his interview, however, is what the NCAA has always forgotten about: providing a valid educational experience for student athletes.
So, it is all well and good for conferences or schools to set their own policies regarding educationally-tethered benefits and publicity rights deals with third parties, but we already know where that will lead: a race to the bottom in the never-ending quest to recruit the best athletes. But, dare one ask, how will this decentralized oversight of the perimeters of college athletics affect the education of the students who happen also to engage in the extracurricular activity of intercollegiate sport?
Surely, Mr. Emmert knows that over 98 percent of NCAA football and men’s basketball players never play a game in the NFL or NBA. Shouldn’t making sure that these students receive a real education with an open choice to follow the subjects and majors they desire and making sure that they receive the medical attention they need as competitive athletes be a first priority?
If we don’t have national standards for a first-rate education, what will be the outcome? And what will happen to the funding for college sports if the leading Power Five Conferences are unconstrained in how they use the money they generate? What will happen to carrying out commitments around gender equity?
None of these questions is easy to answer, but one would think that Mr. Emmert, who has been president of the NCAA since 2010 and of several universities before that, might consider educational processes and outcomes as he shares his new vision for college sports with the media. What the current tumult does commend is a national commission to ponder what role college sport should play in the university and in the society, and what policies can most efficiently achieve these ends. Antitrust analysis alone will not yield the answers we seek.