I Was Mary Cain

(This post is in reference to Mary Cain’s New York Times video op-ed about the abuse she suffered under ex-Nike head coach Alberto Salazar, which you can watch here. TW: eating disorders, abuse)

In many ways, I was Mary Cain.

My body was weighed, measured, picked apart, scrutinized, and never good enough. I was always too big or too small, or worse: made into a prototype; a weapon that directly contributed to the abuse of others. Coaches used to point to me during workouts and tell my teammates things along the lines of: “If you were as small as Katie, maybe you’d be as fast as her.” Mind you, these were the same coaches who demanded I gained weight and critiqued everything that went on my plate at team dinners. These mixed signals sent two clear messages: 1.) my body would never be good enough, and 2.) my body was a potential danger to the health and well-being of people I cared about. 

I was degraded for poor performances, for hesitating to train through injuries, and for running badly when I did decide to gut it out after being coerced into pushing myself too far. Sometimes I was given the silent treatment after bad outings, which was even worse. I’m still reeling from what was said (and not said) to me on crowded tracks and private offices, but therapy is going well. 

I was publicly weighed in training rooms, body shamed, and belittled for an eating disordered I had little control over. I also watched my teammates endure the emotional trauma of being housed in bodies that were, like mine, never good enough, either too big, or too small in a sport that demands that women shrink themselves as much as possible, but not too much, of course. Because we knew we were to solely to blame when our bodies inevitably failed us like mine did.

I lost my natural period for seven years, and was a walking injury in college: I dealt with everything from tendinitis to muscle pulls, to functional scoliosis. The only injury I (miraculously) didn’t accrue was a stress fracture, probably because I took birth control to artificially elevate my dangerously low estrogen levels in order to protect my bone density. At any rate, my team more than made up for my lack of stress fractures with breaks of their own, as did Mary Cain. She broke five bones during her time at Nike while competing in a non-contact sport. Alberto Salazar didn’t have to lay a hand on her to physically abuse her, and neither did the coaches who injured my teammates and me vicariously.

The worst part of it all? I was complicit: I never spoke up about what was being done to myself and my teammates. It might be illogical, but I can’t help but think that I could have done something to stop all of this while it was happening. But I stayed silent because I was determined to tough it out like a good athlete. Looking back now, I can see that I was too desensitized to view any of it as abnormal anyway, but I still live with the guilt of failing my team every single day. In my mind, I was an abuser of sorts, too.

But Katie, if it was so bad, why didn’t you just quit? And Mary Cain could have walked out at any time too, right?

That’s not how this works. Abusive relationships are gripping, especially when money is involved. 

Mary Cain chose to run for Nike professionally instead of competing in college, so her sport was her livelihood. She was eighteen years old when Salazar got a hold of her, with no job experience other than running fast and long. It doesn’t help that athletes, especially endurance runners, have an unreal pain tolerance, too. Mary Cain wasn’t wired to fold and she literally could not quit her job as a professional runner. Her survival depended on her ability to endure trauma.

Scholarship athletes competing under the NCAA (in all sports) are placed in an eerily similar scenario. Vulnerable 18-22 year-olds who are wholly dependent on their coaches, conditioned to endure pain, and terrified of getting their scholarships revoked are easy targets for abuse. If a coach can dangle a scholarship over their athletes’ heads, that coach can get an entire team to do just about anything.

The NCAA wants everyone to believe that college athletes aren’t university employees, but that’s not the reality when, like Mary Cain, college athletes compete for their keep. We might not run for Nike, but that’s why we “just do it”: Quitting simply isn’t an option when scholarships are involved, regardless of the systemic abuse that takes place under the governing bodies that oversee college athletes. And I wish fans cared about that as much as they care about bringing back NCAA video games.


Division III Violations, Division I Consequences

Several Division I schools have recently made headlines for alleged amateurism violations (Kansas and Georgia Tech, to name some), but now, a Division III school is receiving rare media attention for all of the wrong reasons. Last week, the NCAA stripped The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor football team of its 2017 national title and vacated all of its wins from the 2016-17 season for a self-reported amateurism violation. Institutions usually self-report NCAA violations to proactively avoid harsh punishments from the NCAA by admitting to their wrongdoings before the NCAA finds out on its own.

Apparently, UMHB felt that it violated rules blatantly enough to fear punishment from the head office, even amid the current college hoops scandal and legislation being passed that threatens the structure of the NCAA as we know it. And the head office responded quickly and severely, even with all of its current distractions. So what did UMHB do to stand out in the chaos?

Head football coach Pete Fredenburg allegedly let his players borrow his car over the course of 18 months of his tenure. A 2006 Subaru.

If this sounds absurd at face value, it’s even more ridiculous when you look at the Division-III Manual. According to Bylaw “Staff members may provide reasonable local transportation to student-athletes on an occasional basis.” There’s a similar rule in the Division I Manual, which is why I think it will only be a matter of time before a D I school finds itself in trouble with transportation rules.

Personally, I don’t think Fredenburg did anything wrong, given the phrasing of the legislation, but I’m not the one making the rules. “Reasonable” and “occasional” are ambiguous, which, unfortunately, lends power to the NCAA. That gray area will likely come in handy for the head office, as UMHB has appealed the punishment, and for good reason. Unlike the scandals permeating Division I, Coach Fredenburg seemed to have good intentions when he violated the NCAA’s amateurism rules. When asked about letting his players borrow his car, Fredenburg said “I have a passion to help youngsters. [The athlete] desperately needed some help. I felt like I was okay with the interpretation of the rules. I had an old car that was in my driveway and I loaned it to him.”

The sentence worth repeating is “I felt like I was okay with the interpretation with the rules.” Apparently, the NCAA is not, which is why its policy is so vague. At the end of the day, the NCAA owns the interpretation of its rules at the expense of its member schools.

Another point worth noting is that Division III athletes are not allowed to receive athletic scholarships. Per the Division III Manual’s philosophy statement, athletic intuitions “shall not award financial aid to any student on the basis of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance.” These athletes don’t receive any scholarship money to compete. Isn’t it “reasonable” to allow them to borrow a 2006 Subaru?

Still, the NCAA is rarely, if ever, reasonable, even with its true amateurs: Division III athletes are the ones who are playing for the love of the game and who most closely reflect the NCAA’s purported nonprofessional ideal. But amateurism is all but obsolete at the Division I level, and it looks to me like the NCAA is flexing its power as long as it can. This time, it’s targeting its actual amateurs.

A Critic and a Fan

This past Saturday, College GameDay came to Austin, and I crossed an item off of my bucket list by going. I made a sign on Friday, woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning, arrived at campus at 5:30 to snag a prime spot in front of the cameras, waited two and a half hours for the show to begin, and made a fool of myself on ESPN (my whole family watched for me and my mom sent me the picture below while I was there).

That’s (a very excited) me! We lost, but my sign said “Welcome to Austin, SU! (We’ll give y’all the “L” tonight!)”

It was an experience and a half. I lost my voice, I got sunburned, I felt sore and hungover the next day (no alcohol necessary), and I’m still trying to reclaim a normal sleep pattern going into work this week because I’m still pumped. I would do it again in a heartbeat.  It was a magical day and many dreams came true.

And, in spite of my critical stance of the NCAA, I feel zero guilt for indulging in a fun day centered around college sports. Because to me, College GameDay coming to Austin encompassed some of the best things about collegiate athletics. Here’s my short list:

First, there’s the ability of a sporting event to gather a crowd of thousands of strangers together as a community. I stood by a section of LSU fans, who seemed like lovely people, and we all had a good time together. We didn’t even have to exchange names. We had a common purpose, even if it was directed at separate teams, and enjoyed the rivalry and camaraderie. Texas lost the game that evening, but the fans won the morning. No other campus events have the capacity to do that on the same scale as university athletics. 

Second, athletics provide a heartbeat to universities. This really set in on my walk home, where tailgating was already hours underway at 11:00 AM for a 6:30 PM football game. Would alumni come back to their colleges for any other reason than for sporting events? Would we tailgate for academic purposes? Would multiple generations come together to hang out on a Saturday for any other reason? Would dance teams, cheerleading squads, or marching bands exist without football stadiums to house them and would their audiences be half as large if they did? What else would universities rally around, but athletics, where rallying is encouraged?

Finally, for all of its flaws, the NCAA does provide at least partial aid to thousands of college athletes. And I’m a firm believer that there is nothing morally wrong with the marketization of collegiate athletics, as long as the athletes get a fair (key word) share of it too, as well as a safe, supportive work environment. It’s the NCAA’s process, not its product, that I take issue with. So I don’t think that it’s hypocritical for sports critics to also be sports fans. Those two terms are not mutually exclusive. You can be two things.

That being said, I do believe it’s irresponsible for fans to turn a blind eye to the structural issues surrounding the sports we love, whether it’s at the youth, collegiate, or professional level. It’s impossible for me: I can’t go to a football game without thinking about the power imbalances surrounding the event, the structural barriers college athletes face, or the inattention the NCAA affords its athletes. I believe this concept of critical fanhood extends to the arts, politics, industries, pop culture, and any other object of our attention as well.

I will rarely turn down an invitation to a college football/basketball/baseball/softball game, but I always joke that I just might ruin the experience for whoever is accompanying me by critiquing the NCAA in between plays. But I still see the good of college sports. It’s buried, but it’s there, and I can support that. So still I go to the games, because I’m not about to let the NCAA take the fun out of college sports any more than it already does.

Maybe I still sound hypocritical. Maybe I should pitch my tent in the “critic” camp or the “fan” camp. That’s a tension that I wrestle with all the time. But if College GameDay ever comes back to Austin, you better believe I’ll be there in the front row with my critical hat on the whole time.

A Tale of Two Scandals

It’s almost time to start the Fall semester, so it’s only fitting that another academic scandal just broke in the NCAA. I’ve been receiving lots of questions about it and I’m here to offer a one-word answer. But first, here’s the background information:

On Friday, the Mississippi State football and men’s basketball teams were placed on a three-year probation for academic fraud. According to ESPN, a tutor completed multiple assignments and exams for Mississippi State athletes in exchange for payment. While I think the punishment is far too light, it’s fantastic that the NCAA stepped in and punished the programs involved. However, many sports fans are crying foul, because the University of North Carolina was involved in a similar academic fraud scandal two years ago and escaped unscathed. 

To recap, in 2017, a report from the University of North Carolina uncovered an eighteen-year history of academic fraud. Over that timespan, roughly 3,100 students took a fraudulent “paper class” and were given credit for half-baked assignments and minimal work (please read this essay from the class. It received an A-minus, gives you a good picture of what happened at UNC, and literally takes ten seconds).

Athletes, in particular were funneled into the class, but it was also available to the general student population, which was why the NCAA didn’t step in. Instead, it deferred to the university, because a fraudulent class offered to everyone wasn’t athlete-specific and therefore, not an impermissible benefit.

I call BS. The NCAA didn’t step in because UNC is too valuable in March. 

Many people believe that football is the big moneymaker of the NCAA, but the reality is that the head office generates about 90% of its annual funding from March Madness. That’s also why the NCAA decided to punish Mississippi State, while letting UNC slide in 2017: Mississippi State isn’t nearly as valuable in March.

Mississippi State’s men’s basketball team finished seventh in the SEC last year, as opposed to UNC finishing second in the ACC, the better basketball conference. UNC has a brand name for basketball and March just isn’t the same without the Tar Heels. Plus, keeping UNC out of trouble means there’s a possibility for a Duke/UNC rivalry game in the national tournament. Mississippi State doesn’t have the same March presence or a rivalry so voracious. 

This might feel a little like a conspiracy theory, but there’s a pattern here. Consider Michigan State and the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. The NCAA purported that Nassar’s actions never “substantiated violations of NCAA legislation” and opted not to punish Michigan State for its institutional negligence.

It’s an absurd ruling from an organization that claims to be committed to student-athlete well-being. Many questioned why the NCAA gave Michigan State a hand slap rather than a postseason ban or a department-wide death penalty. Again, I point to March. Michigan State has a tournament-qualifying streak that spans back to 1998 and a fierce rivalry with the University of Michigan, which has also qualified every year since 2011. In other words, strong power five basketball programs are all but immune to NCAA violations.

But wait, what about the University of Louisville?

That was another case entirely. In 2013, the NCAA stripped the University of Louisville men’s basketball team of its 2013 title after the head of basketball operations was found guilty of providing escorts to players and recruits. Aside from the obvious ethical murkiness of that situation, the athletic department provided these individuals with an “illegal benefit,” or a perk that’s only available to athletes. That’s an amateur violation, which threatens the organizational structure of the NCAA, which is why the punishment was so harsh.

I (along with half the state of Kentucky) still don’t agree with the ruling, but it made sense from the NCAA’s vantage point: the Cards were on a performance decline after their last Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2015, so it was safe for the head office to make an example of a flailing program after a three-year drought. The NCAA essentially used U of L to make a statement: Nobody questions the Association’s business model and gets away with it. And at the end of the day, the NCAA is an athletic, not an academic institution, no matter what its PR says.

So that’s my take. The NCAA doesn’t care about academic fraud nearly as much as it cares about its bottom line and if you’re consistently good in March, you’re bulletproof. Lots of people have asked me what the difference is between the University of North Carolina scandal and the current situation at Mississippi State and I offer everyone the same one-word answer: March.

Agents for Amateurs?

Today, we’re going to look at the NCAA’s commitment to amateurism. For those of you who are new to Flagrant and the world of college sports, athletic amateurism means that NCAA athletes are amateurs and are therefore, not allowed to collect money for their images, likenesses, and skills. Once a college athlete collects cash for any of those things, (s)he is ineligible to compete in the NCAA.

In spite of the Manual’s emphasis on regulating amateurism, the actual written commitment is really short, so here’s the full text:

Member institutions shall conduct their athletics programs for students who choose to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a part of their educational experience and in accordance with NCAA bylaws, thus maintaining a line of demarcation between student-athletes who participate in the Collegiate Model and athletes competing in the professional model.

This is a loaded paragraph, given recent news.

Earlier this week, the NCAA released a statement outlining its new standards for college athletes who want to use agents to go pro. Which is interesting, because the NCAA constantly stresses that its athletes are amateurs in order to maintain a “line of demarcation” between collegiate and professional sports. It looks like that line is being blurred, but of course the NCAA isn’t framing it that way. According to the statement:

“NCAA legislation will allow a select few student-athletes to meet with and be represented by an NCAA-certified agent without losing eligibility.  To accomplish this, the NCAA created an agent certification program applicable to MBB agents beginning in August 2019.”

In essence, the NCAA is so committed to amateurism that it is regulating the professional pursuits of its athletes, who are, by definition, not professional athletes.

Say that out loud. Slowly. It’s doesn’t make sense, right?

My hot take is that the NCAA is finally admitting that its athletes are closer to professionals than the head office would like to admit, so of course, the NCAA has to control them. That alone is a lot to unpack.

But let’s move away from amateurism for a minute, because the requirements for agents are also interesting. Here are the baseline requirements all NCAA agents are required to meet:

  1. Have a bachelor’s degree
  2. Have been [National Basketball Players’ Association] certified for at least three consecutive years and be in good-standing
  3. Maintain professional liability insurance.
  4. Submit application by appropriate deadline.

There’s also an in-person exam and a background check required by the head office. These requirements are interesting for a lot of reasons other than the popular argument that the NCAA is targeting NBA super agent Rich Paul (who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree). In order to highlight my main takeaway, I have to show you the NCAA’s list of coaching requirements:

No, I didn’t forget a hyperlink. The NCAA doesn’t standardize coach hires like it does agent hires. Which only makes its focus on amateur athletics all the more questionable. Why the NCAA is putting more effort into regulating the professional pursuits of a select few college athletes while ignoring the needs of the true amateurs is beyond me.

Finally, let’s talk money. Not athlete money though. We are discussing the NCAA, after all, so even college athletes with agents will be prohibited from collecting payment while competing collegiately. Another requirement of NCAA agents is that they are have to pay a $250 application fee and a $1,250 certification fee. The fees are collected annually, which could mean big payouts for the head office, should a lot of NBA agents jump on board.

Monetarily, this could be a lucrative requirement: it’s not like the athletes have other options. For now, the minimum age for NBA draft eligibility is 19, and since there’s no real minor league for professional basketball, athletes with NBA potential really have no choice but to compete in college for a year or so before going pro. The NCAA has always functioned as a minor league for professional basketball players. Now it looks like the head office is finally owning it.

I’m all for college athletes having access to agents. I always have been, because it’s clear that there’s nothing truly amateurish about college sports. However, the monetary pursuits of college athletes is not the business of the head office. But of course, the NCAA is going to step in anyway, because everybody but the athletes gets to see the money they generate.

Equal Pay? Not in the NCAA.

It’s no ~Secret~ that female athletes are underpaid. In fact, the deodorant giant just donated $529,000 to fill the financial gap between the US men’s and women’s soccer teams to prove it.

Last month, Diana Taurasi echoed the sentiment as it pertains to the WNBA, where salaries are maxed out at $117,500.  For reference, the minimum salary requirement in the NBA is $838,464. That’s for a rookie with zero years of professional experience.

There are usually two sets of responses to these numbers. Either something sexist like “Women belong in the kitchen anyway,” “Women’s sports is a joke,” or “There’s a WNBA?” And everyone’s heard all of the stale “sandwich” jokes too.

But you might also say something reasonable like “Well, women’s sports just don’t generate as much money as the men.”

If you go for the latter, you’re right. But what does this have to do with the NCAA? A lot, actually.

 Yes, it’s true that women’s sports don’t generate as much profit as men’s sports. With rare exceptions like women’s vs. men’s gymnastics, you’re absolutely right. But I want to implore you to consider the root cause.

Many people hail Title IX as a savior for women’s sports and while the document has done a lot for female athletes, it falls short of true equity in the NCAA. In fact, the NCAA’s Title IX Frequently Asked Questions page emphasizes that Title IX does NOT guarantee equal funding among programs:

“The only provision that requires that the same dollars be spent proportional to participation is scholarships. Otherwise, male and female student-athletes must receive equitable ‘treatment’ and ‘benefits.’”

The quotation marks aren’t mine. They’re in the original text. So what do “treatment” and “benefits” mean exactly? Certainly not equal funding or equal opportunity.

An NCAA publication entitled “Where are the Women?” notes that just 40 % of women’s athletic programs are actually helmed by women, down from 55% in 1981. Women coaching men is almost unheard of, statistically significant at under one percent.

But here’s where it really gets fun: another report conducted by the NCAA itself indicates that women receive 18% of operating budgets, 30% of competitive opportunities, 41% of scholarship funds, 46% of championship opportunities, and 29% of recruiting dollars. Female head coaches also only earn 25% as much as their male counterparts for an average of over $500,000 in coach salary gaps.

In total, these findings equal out to a $17.2 million spending differential.  

So Title IX doesn’t really do much for women in the NCAA except allow us to play full-court basketball, which wasn’t a thing pre-title IX. Nowhere in the document does Title IX give female athletes the same opportunities as the men.

That’s a problem. There’s no equal playing field in college or professional sports. Women compete on a delayed start line. I like statistics, but you don’t even have to crunch the numbers to see it.

Flip on your TV. When was the last time you saw an advertisement for a women’s college athletic program aired on ESPN? How many more male-centric advertisements do you see? Go to a university bookstore. How many football jerseys do you see? Baseball jerseys? Men’s basketball jerseys? What about jerseys for women’s sports?

How much do you pay for a softball game versus a baseball game at your university of choice? There’s a 40% gap for season ticket deposits here at the University of Texas (softball price here. Baseball price here).

Did you notice that the 2019 men’s basketball championship game was aired at primetime on a weeknight while the women’s championship was aired at 5:30 on a Sunday?

What about the fact that there’s no female equivalent to college football?

We can debate for days about the merit of equal pay and the legitimacy of women’s sports, but one thing is clear: female athletes don’t have a fighting chance against the boys because we’re not marketed the same. It’s a societal problem and it’s another reason repealing amateurism won’t solve half the issues within the NCAA: some images and likenesses are simply less valuable than others.

This is speculation, but I think the NCAA wants to keep it that way to make more room for male athletes to excel. Because they’re more profitable. Because athletic departments want them to be so that’s where the money goes. Do you see the cycle here?

So regardless of where you stand on equal pay or the value of women’s athletics, it’s undeniable that women are competing with a slanted scoreboard. That’s why we’re so passionate about pay gaps. We have to be. It’s not like we get much help from Title IX or the organizations that champion it.   

SB-206 and (Ir)Responsible Recruiting Standards

Today, I’m going to do two things I really don’t want to do.

First of all, I’m going to go out of order. I wanted to start off this series with the NCAA’s commitment to value-based legislation. We’re going to be talking about its commitment to responsible recruiting standards instead. It’s a short commitment, so I’ll include the full text:

“Recruiting bylaws shall be designed to promote informed decisions and balance the interests of prospective student-athletes, their educational institutions, the Association’s member institutions and intercollegiate athletics as a whole. This commitment includes minimizing the role of external influences on prospective student-athletes and their families and preventing excessive contact or pressure in the recruitment process.”

Recruiting is a dirty game for a lot of reasons, but I’ll talk about that in another post. For now, let’s move onto the second thing I really don’t want to do, because you’re going to want to stick around for this one. Today, I have to admit that Mark Emmert is right about something. That’s painful for me to write but I have to give him credit. It’s only responsible.

Last week, the NCAA released a statement in response to the Fair Pay to Play Act passing the California assembly. It only has one more hurdle until it becomes law and has until July 11th to do so. Emmert is lobbying to prevent that from happening. And his justification actually makes sense. Here’s an excerpt of the letter he wrote to the final committee that explains why:

“When contrasted with current NCAA rules… as drafted the bill threatens to alter materially the principles of intercollegiate athletics and create local differences that would make it impossible to host fair national championships.”

He’s right. I hate to say it, but Mark Emmert is right. Which links back to responsible recruiting standards and excessive pressure, and externa influences mentioned in the Division 1Manual. Any reform to amateurism needs to be comprehensive. South Carolina representative Mark Walker knows this, which is why he’s working to pass a similar law through congress. I like his approach a lot better than California’s. Here’s why:

If only California athletes are allowed to accept payment, that creates an egregious unfair competitive imbalance to California universities. Coaches will be able to leverage that when they recruit high school athletes and the Pac-12 will have national championship teams until other member states hop on board, which could take a while. That’s not fair.

I’ll give you a scenario to illustrate my point: University of Southern California head coach, Clay Helton and defending national champion coach, Dabo Swinney both go to recruit an athlete. Swinney has prestige on his side and USC hasn’t won a national championship since 2004. But, should SB-206 finally pass, Helton now has money on his team, or at least the potential for his athletes to earn it.

Helton can offer recruits the opportunity to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars while they play at USC. Swinney can’t do that unless he wants to do it illegally. He won’t. Swinney doesn’t think athletes should be paid in the first place. Who do you think is going to win that recruit over? Especially if he comes from poverty, which, contrary to popular belief, most full-ride athletes do.

I’ve said before that I’m all for fair compensation. It’s not the NCAA’s right to give or take away in the first place. But amateurism reform needs to be comprehensive. That’s why I’m a fan of Mark Walker’s bill and critical of SB-206. Widespread bylaws are the only way the NCAA can maintain its commitment to responsible recruiting standards. Mark Emmert is right. And I hate to admit that. But it’s only responsible.   

The National Collegiate Absurdity Association

Every good team needs a gameplan and this week, I’m talking strategy.

Strategic ambiguity, that is.

Although the term might sound unfamiliar, I’m sure everyone reading this piece has encountered strategic ambiguity in their lives as working adults. Simply put, strategic ambiguity is vague corporate language used to foster agreements.  It is commonly used when creating rules and legislative frameworks in organizations.

Why on earth would an organization choose to be vague in its legislation? Because explicitly-stated policy has been found to be strikingly ineffective. According to Eric Eisenberg (1984), the use of strategic ambiguity fosters a sense of “unified diversity,” which gives organizational members perceived authority while affording real interpretive power of the rules to the institution that creates them.

Recently, the NCAA announced its construction of a working group to discuss modifications to amateurism. See if you can find the strategic ambiguity in the following excerpt:

“This group will bring together diverse opinions from the membership — from presidents and commissioners to student-athletes — that will examine the NCAA’s position on name, image and likeness benefits and potentially propose rule modifications tethered to education”

If you guessed “tethered to education,” you are correct. What exactly does “tethered to education” mean? I research the NCAA and I don’t know but I can tell you what it doesn’t mean, according to another excerpt from the statement:

“While the formation of this group is an important step to confirming what we believe as an association, the group’s work will not result in paying students as employees…That structure is contrary to the NCAA’s educational mission and will not be a part of this discussion.”

So proposed amateurism modifications probably aren’t the big deal everyone thinks they are if they are “tethered to education.” At best, I’m predicting ridiculous caps on how much athletes can earn. But it’s up to the NCAA to decide because, thanks to strategic ambiguity, the Association gets the final say. We’ll see what the committee says in October.

Another interesting find from this statement is the NCAA’s appeal to education as an organizational value. It makes sense, right? An association designed to help college athletes should value education.

The NCAA isn’t the only organization that appeals to values, or “generally agreed-upon ideas of what is right or wrong or good and bad in a society” (Hoffman and Ford, 2010, p. 31).  I’m sure you can think of a number of buzzwords your places of employment use to communicate their principles and standards. Think “synergy,” “innovation,” and “inclusion.”

To be clear, an organization should always state and follow through on its values but I always cringe when the NCAA references education in its publications, especially when it is used to justify amateurism rules.

Why? One key function of value appeals is to satisfy an organization’s desire to create and maintain a sense of organizational legitimacy, which John Dowling and Jeffrey Pfeffer (1975) define as “congruence between the social values associated with or implied by their activities and the norms of acceptable behavior in the larger social system of which they are a part” (p. 122).

Here’s where values get problematic: people don’t like it when organizations don’t act out their values. According to Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrecths-Tytcea (1969), absurd, inconsistent institutions are considered unstable and once such inconsistencies are revealed, organizations strive to “avoid the charge of absurdity” (p. 195).

Last year, I wrote and presented a research paper entitled “The National Collegiate Absurdity Association” that looks at the NCAA’s “Commitments to the Division 1 Model,” which essentially guide its legislative framework. The nine commitments are: value-based legislation, amateurism, fair competition, integrity and sportsmanship, institutional control and compliance, student-athlete well-being, sound academic standards, responsible recruiting standards, and diversity and inclusion. As I’m going through the process of editing and publishing my work, I’d like to take the time to share my findings with everyone.

Here’s a brief summary: the NCAA doesn’t live up to seven out of nine of these standards (which is, by definition, absurd). I’ll let you guess the two it emphasizes the most.

For the next couple of months, I plan on taking each of these commitments and dissecting them individually so you don’t have to read a 25-page paper all at once. Specifically, I’m going to explain how and why the NCAA fails to live up to its rhetoric by using its own publications and member testimonies.

Next week, we’ll kick things off with the NCAA’s first commitment: value-based legislation. Stay tuned for more absurd content!

Is the “Fair Pay to Play Act” Really Fair?

When I started Flagrant, I promised that it would cover issues outside of athletic amateurism. And I promise, it will. Just not quite yet.

Earlier this week, Nancy Skinner’s Fair Pay to Play Act (SB-206) passed the California Senate. Should it pass the California State Assembly and receive approval from Governor Gavin Newsome, it will become a state law, effective 2023.

Essentially, The Fair Pay to Play act is designed to challenge athletic amateurism at the state level. Should it officially become law, SB-206 would 1.) enable NCAA athletes to profit from their images and likenesses and 2.) prohibit California schools and athletic organizations (namely the NCAA) from restricting athletes’ free market activity.

Skinner is essentially hoping to force the hand of the NCAA by legally prohibiting California schools from following amateurism mandates.

That’s dangerous. Here’s why:

First, I’m assuming SB-206 will pass but let’s pretend for a moment that it doesn’t. A highly-publicized legal balk would just strengthen the NCAA’s argument for the necessity of amateurism as an integral part of collegiate athletics. Several Power Five programs in the state of California have expressed opposition to the bill, which already isn’t a good look. If progressive, profitable California schools aren’t on board with repealing amateurism, why should the NCAA change anything? Legally, if the bill fails, the argument for amateurism will only grow stronger, bolstered by courtroom opposition.

Here is another problem with attacking amateurism at the state level: the NCAA is a private institution not bound by state legislation. Ultimately, the NCAA gets the final say on who is a member and who is not. If SB-206 becomes a law, the NCAA would either have to restructure its entire business model by 2023 (the ideal outcome) or punish its California members for following state laws (which is problematic).

Here’s a critical take: although California is a gold mine for Pac-12 sports, I don’t see the NCAA acquiescing to the demands of SB-206. Rather, I see it making a statement by opposing it and ruling athletes and entire institutions ineligible. If the NCAA refuses to budge against California, that sends a strong message to other Power Five-heavy states (like Texas or Florida) that the Division 1 Manual is more powerful than the law.

If this scenario plays out, it could spell trouble for the NCAA’s California member schools. Although prominent coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari have expressed disdain at amateurism mandates, member schools still must adhere to NCAA guidelines in order to receive a.) funding and b.) opportunities to compete against other member schools. Needless to say, California programs have a lot to lose if the NCAA plays hardball.

Essentially, the Fair Pay to Play Act will prohibit member schools from following NCAA rules but it’s not like these institutions have a choice in their compliance; whether they like it or not, member schools are bound to the mandates in the Division 1 Manual. Where else would their teams compete but under the NCAA? There’s no comparative organization that offers the same opportunities for profit, prestige, and competition.

The NCAA holds a corner market in the industry of hyper-competitive collegiate athletics. There’s literally nowhere else to go, which one of the ways the NCAA forces compliance. It’s a sketchy business model but it works. And the NCAA gets to choose how strictly it punishes members who stray from it.

Additionally, member schools, for better or worse, have to follow the money, which is why USC, Stanford, and the University of California have already voiced opposition to SB-206. They know a law that punishes member schools for adhering to the rules to which they are bound will siphon off their monetary and competitive resources. And those effects would trickle down to the athletes.

If SB-206 passes and the NCAA ends up banning non-compliant California schools from participation, The Fair Pay to Play Act could ironically threaten the financial well-being of California athletes by cutting off funding to their programs. If California universities are banned from competing, what will happen to the scholarships of the athletes affected? That’s anyone’s guess but because NCAA scholarships aren’t four-year deals, I’m uncomfortable with that potential outcome. So although SB-206 is well-intentioned, it could actually do much more harm than good not only for the universities that depend on the NCAA for funding and membership but the individual athletes who depend on their scholarships.

I know these are all hypothetical situations at this point and that the ideal outcome is that the NCAA will cave under legal pressure rather than take action against its California members. It’s entirely possible that the NCAA will buckle but it’s equally possible that it will buckle down. For now, passing the Fair Pay to Play Act is a risky gamble and California lawmakers are betting with athletes’ scholarships and NCAA eligibility.

That’s not fair.

I’m all for repealing amateurism, but I can’t fully support the Fair Pay to Play Act because it’s dangerous to put athletes in the line of fire in an attempt to prompt change. Although I love what California is trying to do, putting constituents at risk is never the right way to pressure the organizations that subdue them.

Why Flagrant?

“Flagrant” is a strong word, reserved for the harshest and most violent penalties in the game of basketball. But it’s an appropriate adjective to describe the fouls committed against NCAA athletes today.

My name is Katie Lever and I am a former Division 1 athlete and a current Ph. D student at the University of Texas at Austin. I study NCAA policy and the health and well-being of its athletes, which is not what most people expect out of academia. But my dad has a trite yet true saying that–through his constant repetition–resonates with me: “You have to do what you’re good at.”  Eye roll aside, I’m good at critiquing the NCAA because I’ve lived it and academia gives me an excellent framework and platform to do so. Researching the NCAA fits me as naturally as my nine-year-old softball glove.

I stand by the value of researching the NCAA for many reasons, namely because athletics hold immense value to wide audiences. Most people resonate with sports figures at all levels and college athletics in particular has a cult-like following in the United States. For better or worse, people care about sports and that passion and affiliation offer me an avenue to talk both academically and colloquially about NCAA issues.

I also believe in researching college sports because NCAA policy carries implications in the real world and college athletes are a vulnerable population for many reasons (to be discussed later). NCAA athletes have very few rights and a plethora of unique problems that both precede their collegiate careers and follow them after their eligibility expires. The image that the NCAA projects to the public is mythic at best and revealing the truth about NCAA issues is, in a nutshell, the aim of my research. “Flagrant” is a digestible, easy-to-read (and probably sassy) extension of that research.  

Amateurism, or the NCAA’s policy that restricts athletes from profiting from their image or likeness, is the current hot-button issue surrounding NCAA policy. It has gained so much popularity that it has become low-hanging fruit for NCAA critics: of course college athletes deserve fair access to their own images and the ability to profit from them. But there are many more issues that plague college athletes that aren’t getting half the attention that athletic amateurism is, probably because these problems mostly affect athletes who don’t play men’s basketball or football. It is a great fear of mine that once (if) amateurism is finally repealed, criticism surrounding the NCAA will die down. Amateurism is only one item on my list of everything that is wrong with the NCAA.

To be clear, I love the press amateurism is generating. Prohibiting (mostly minority, low-income) college athletes from profiting from their images while the NCAA pockets their revenue is an egregious overstep of power and restricting individual free-market access is not only un-American, but unjust. However, athletic amateurism only scrapes the surface of issues that affect NCAA athletes and that is the point of this blog: to highlight the flagrance of the NCAA’s business model and the ill-effects that ineffective policy has on its athletes.  It is my hope that the public veracity surrounding amateurism can provide a similar platform to discuss other meaningful topics and prompt change in the NCAA.

Criticism aside, I believe in the NCAA as it ought to be: an educational, non-profit organization that is athlete-centered and provides resources to populations who need it the most—in athletics as an “avocation,” as the Division 1 Manual likes to say, designed to enhance the educational pursuits of athletes. Watching college sports today, can any of us really say that this is what the NCAA looks like as an organization? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean that I am fully anti-NCAA. Any good coach will tell you they are the most critical of the athletes they believe in the most. I believe in college sports but I can’t condone how the NCAA operates now. It is an institution that is greedy at best and corrupt at worst and it’s time to blow that whistle on every foul.

That’s my warm-up. It’s time to play.