NCAA’s Proxy War

NCAA_primarycYou can go mad trying to make sense of the NCAA.  If you look for logic in what they do and how they treat students, you’ll rarely find any.  Research infractions and you’ll see a history of punishments that looks more random than throwing darts at a map.  Perhaps the reason none of their actions make sense is because there is one thing we’re not thinking about.  Perhaps there is one string that ties it all together.  I call it the academics theory.

Look at the issue of paying players.  The NCAA has consistently taken the stance that players should not be paid.  They resisted cost of attendance for years.  Then they opposed the O’cannon case for use of likeness.  They certainly won’t be allowing any sort of endorsements anytime soon.  Their rationale: these are amateur student-athletes, and if they get any money it will ruin that.

Most fans are fine with college players being student athletes.  They are fine with the players being enrolled and having to have a minimum GPA.  They are fine with requirements on the progress toward a degree.  An increasing number no longer care if they players receive some money, in some restricted ways.  An increasing number think a student can also get paid.

Why the disconnect between the NCAA governing body and the fans?  Why won’t the NCAA adopt a model where the important part of the being a student-athlete is being a student?  Why do they focus on amateurism instead?  It’s because they can’t control what being a student is.  Knowing that, they instead wage a proxy war to try to make sure everyone is an amateur instead of making sure everyone is a student.

The NCAA can stop all overt attempts to compensate players and most covert attempts to significantly compensate players.  It’s what their punishment system is designed to investigate and find.  Why did SMU get the death penalty? Paying players.  Why was Southern Cal hit hard? Compensation to players.  What’s the deal with the latest Laremy Tunsil allegations?  Paying players.  That’s where the NCAA stands.  They oppose money going to the players.

It’s so ingrained in the way we view college sports that it is only recently that people have openly stated that a student-athlete can also receive some money.  Other students get money for their activities, and they are still students.  It’s not the poverty of the student athlete that makes them a college representative, it’s the student part.  Are they actually getting an education?  Are they going to class and passing on their own?  That’s the proper question, but the NCAA isn’t good at that.

The NCAA isn’t good at making sure academic institutions are actually educating their athletes.  To be certain, it’s a hard job.  It’s incredibly difficult to find out what a player has learned and to find out how many of his classes are legitimate.  It’s probably so hard, the NCAA doesn’t really even try.  They rely on the academic integrity of the institutions themselves to do the bulk of the enforcing.

Look at the North Carolina situation.  How are decades of no show classes and systematic, institutionalized academic fraud not the kind of thing the NCAA cares about most?  How is it that this isn’t as important as a player receiving rent money or pocket cash?  It doesn’t make sense, unless the NCAA is completely unable to police the academics.

The NCAA, an organization whose main purpose is to administer competitions for student athletes, cannot police the student part.  Everything they do makes more sense if you begin with the premise that they cannot do what they are supposed to.  Why does the NCAA care more about money?  Because they can’t enforce the important part.  Why doesn’t the NCAA come down hard on the academic fraud?  Because then they would have to take on a task they can’t possibly hope to complete.

It’s just a theory, but perhaps the NCAA is unable to do the very thing it should be doing, ensuring that student athletes are students.  They go after money as a proxy for the real enforcement they should be doing.  They punish payments hard and look the other way on academic issues.  It makes sense from that perspective.

About Billy Koehler

Billy Koehler is the founder of and a contributing writer at He has been covering college football since 2006. You can follow him on twitter @billykoehler.
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