UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Here, the outrage looks like the T-shirts seen at Penn State football games with a hammer and sickle replacing the "C" of the NCAA. In Harrisburg, the anger has been more organized, documented actually, in a lawsuit enacted by the Commonwealth against the NCAA.
Tangible animosity geared toward the NCAA exists elsewhere, too. In Miami, the university president accused the NCAA of "unprofessional and unethical behavior" after details of a botched investigation came out in February. In California, a collection of former athletes are suing the NCAA over the use of their images. At the Final Four in April, president Mark Emmert engaged in a meandering filibuster followed by a testy Q-and-A session that led many writers to describe the scene as a harbinger of the end.
With this backdrop, real change finally seems palpable. But on a level of precedent and organization, change to the NCAA is far from a guarantee. In fact, the opposite is true.
"They aren't going to lose power," says Murray Sperber, the author of several books about college athletics and a well-known NCAA critic. "Reformers don't know the history that well. ... There's never been meaningful reform in the NCAA. How do you square the circle when that whole enterprise is based on a number of contradictions?"
The NCAA is held together by a governance structure built to support self-interest, unchecked by any outside agency and guarded by the government. Its history is one of an organization largely static and staid, escaping calls for change not much different than those it is experiencing right now.
In 1923, reformer extraordinaire Upton Sinclair lashed out at the commercialism in college sports in his book "The Goose-Step," saying the enterprise had become a monstrous cancer, an industry that exploited athletes. The Carnegie Commission did a widely read study on college athletics in 1929, similar to those reform groups like the Knight Commission, the National Collegiate Players Association, the Drake Group and the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics have produced. When the board of regents of the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia won a landmark case regarding television rights in the 1980s, people were predicting financial doom for the NCAA.
What is wrong has not changed -- commercialism has intersected with college athletics, causing issues ranging from a perceived lack of academic culture to concerns over unpaid labor by athletes in football and men's basketball. It's just now that the revenues pumped into college athletic departments are greater, and so are the scandals. But as several experts who have studied college athletics note, the universities have decided that the benefits outweigh the costs.
And when the universities are content -- or at least ambivalent -- the status quo tends to remain. As a member institution, the NCAA at the Division I level is comprised of 340 universities, each represented by its president or, often, someone designated by the president, like the athletic director. The people who govern and can push to change NCAA bylaws are the same people who have a primary interest of bringing revenues to their athletic departments, creating a system largely resistant to reform.
Preserving the brand
Several years ago, when James Duderstadt was the president of the University of Michigan, he grew tired of the rhetoric being pitched back and forth at a Big Ten conference meeting that included each school's president. Their conversations had shifted to TV contracts, bowl payouts and other monetary concerns.
Somewhat in jest but hopeful of initiating a reasonable discussion about the downside of commercialism at their institutions, Duderstadt suggested a five-year moratorium on television coverage of Big Ten football and men's basketball. He told them such an action would allow each school to harness those sports and realign them with the goals of the respective university without pressure from the outside. If you follow college sports at all, you know exactly how his suggestion was greeted.
"In a sense, the NCAA's objective is to preserve the brand so that it provides revenue primarily for a small number of people who get very, very rich on the exploitation of young students who really lose opportunities for their futures," Duderstadt said. "And that's what's corrupt about it. The regulations are designed to protect the brand, to protect the playing level and keep it exciting, not to protect the student athletes. Not to change the paradigm."
For the Division I level, a group of 18 university presidents known as the board of directors are tasked with setting policy and making changes to the NCAA. They are generally considered to be types reluctant to rock the boat.
In 2011, the board of directors actually did pass significant legislation. They allowed schools to give athletes an annual $2,000 stipend on top of their athletic scholarship. But few athletes got the opportunity to receive the money. The legislation was quickly turned down by the membership in an override vote.
If 75 universities formally protest legislation, an override vote takes place. Then, if 62.5 percent of the membership votes down the new ruling, it doesn't go into effect.
This further complicates change and is yet another reason why the NCAA is internally resistant to reform and why real change or destruction of the college sports system would have to come externally. The O'Bannon vs. the NCAA case is being hailed as that asteroid.
Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon sued the NCAA over the use of his likeness in video games in 2009. Other athletes, notably Oscar Robertson, have joined, turning it into a class-action suit that seeks payment to current and former athletes for the use of their likenesses in television broadcasts as well, which could cost the NCAA and schools billion of dollars. So far the NCAA's attempts to get the suit thrown out have failed, and it is on track for a June 2014 trial date.
John Infante, a lawyer and NCAA expert for Athnet, a website devoted to college recruiting information and issues, has written extensively on the case. If the courts rule in favor of O'Bannon, he has estimated the loss for each high-major institution to be somewhere in the range of $15 million to $20 million in annual revenue from what each makes now. Further damages could come in the future because of the precedent set. While O'Bannon has focused on the NCAA, Infante said numerous athletes could challenge a weakened system, suing individual schools for pay, which could also invoke expensive Title IX issues.
"This could potentially end or change college sports," Infante said.
An end run?
Besides the possibility of the courts ruling in favor of the NCAA (the NCAA has a mixed record in court cases but, as the main lawyer who opposed the NCAA in the landmark television case said, the NCAA also stands for "never compromise anything anytime"), another complication exists that could block any change: the government.
"What do people historically do when they don't like the Supreme Court?" Sperber asked. "They go to Congress."
Congress could amend the statute or convince the Supreme Court to reverse its decision. Infante on this scenario: "First off, setting aside betting on Congress to do anything about anything, it's certainly possible." He said such an action would be a last-resort tactic, though, and could still leave the NCAA vulnerable.
In the past, Congress has routinely acted as a friend to the NCAA and university athletic departments. Classified as charitable organizations, neither entity has to pay income tax. That issue is particularly controversial for the schools' athletic departments, which have the exemption because they supposedly contribute to the educational mission of the university.
But Congress -- aside from studies commissioned several years ago by Charles Grassley and Bill Thomas that went nowhere -- has been unwilling to overhaul any tax laws that could allow for the removal of their exemption. In fact, the IRS made plans to tax advertising revenue and sponsorships from bowl games in 1977 and to remove the tax deduction donors get when they pay the university for priority seating at football and men's basketball games in 1986. Congress stopped the initiatives.
"The IRS did take steps," said John Colombo, a law professor at the University of Illinois who studied the subject. "And every time they went down that road, Congress slapped them on the upside of the head and said, 'Don't ever do that again.' "
Multiple experts have compared the NCAA to the National Rifle Association. It has lobbyists, routinely spending around $150,000 annually on them over the last several years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. It also has loyal supporters, i.e. fans of college football and basketball, who don't want to give up their beloved games. Any politician facing re-election would be much more content with college sports staying the same than having a mainstay of American culture greatly altered or destroyed.
"It would be like you are trying to get rid of motherhood or apple pie," said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor and the author of "Big-Time Sports In American Universities."
Power of the status quo
The people who cry for change the loudest have something in common for the most part. They generally are the media or idealistic professors tired of seeing athletics placed on a pedestal at their universities. As Clotfelter said, laughing, "when a professor like me gets worked up, it doesn't matter that much."
While Pennsylvanians might call for Mark Emmert's head and compare the NCAA to the Soviet Union, they aren't angry because the NCAA hasn't changed for 100 years, they're angry because they believe the NCAA improperly interfered with Penn State's football team. The state sued over the 2012 NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, but Gov. Tom Corbett held off on filing the suit because he didn't want to create a distraction during football season. A federal judge dismissed the suit earlier this month.
The average college sports fan is likely happy with the system and would rather it not be interfered with. Letter-writing campaigns to congressmen have not started to stop the long ongoing arms race in college athletics or to limit the skyrocketing salaries of coaches. But Alabama has built a bronze statue of football coach Nick Saban.
The NCAA men's basketball tournament, the biggest money-maker for the NCAA, enjoyed its highest TV ratings in 15 years for the first round this March. And though attendance has slipped slightly at college football games the last couple of years, TV contracts have increased, as have the number of networks showing games .
When Penn State was in turmoil in November 2011 after the release of the Sandusky grand jury report, a reporter from the Financial Times of London called Duderstadt, curious about American collegiate athletics. He couldn't wrap his head around the situation that would lead to sports being held in such high regard at universities.
"The guy that called said, 'I don't understand anything at all about American football,' " Duderstadt said. " 'But this to me sounds like your equivalent to credit default swaps.' "
A longstanding American industry engages in largely unregulated behavior because it means sizeable profits for the few, even at the expense of others, and would prefer to keep it that way. The general public doesn't really understand the complications but enjoys the perks and would just as well not worry about the risk. Inconvenient blips do pop up. A scandal will erupt at a well-known institution, an employee infamously engages in unethical behavior, but a few years later the system hums on, reaching new highs, impervious to real change as always. Too big to fail.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mdent05. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM