Jay Bilas: Realignment and the NCAA’s hypocritic oath

The NCAA and its member schools talk a good game. But they are hypocrites. All of them.

They wax poetic about values and principles but, over the past three decades, college presidents and administrators have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that college sports isn’t about “athlete welfare,” “education” or “avocation.” They have proven, consistently over time, it is about money. College sports is a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that is no different from the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball. The only difference is that the NCAA requires its athletes to be enrolled in school, and that the NCAA repeatedly violates federal antitrust law by colluding to limit the compensation to athletes. Otherwise, it is entirely the same.

When comparing principles and values relative to money and revenue, consider Augusta National Golf Club, which annually hosts The Masters golf tournament. AGNC, if it chose to do so, could make far more money off of The Masters. Instead of having wall-to-wall commercials, AGNC accepts less money to have a nearly commercial-free broadcast. Instead of heavy signage from advertising partners, AGNC accepts less money to have a clean looking golf course, free of the rampant commercialization present at nearly every other major sporting event. Instead of charging exorbitant prices for its famed pimento cheese sandwiches and other concessions, AGNC chooses to charge less for a better patron experience. Similarly, AGNC could charge far more for merchandise with The Masters logo, yet chooses to charge less, even when patrons would pay the higher price.

When it comes to revenue, that is what sticking to your principles and values looks like. The NCAA and its member schools wouldn’t know that because their student-athlete principles and values are further down the list from the clear No. 1 priority: to maximize revenue.

Some wish to blame media companies, as if media executives are sitting outside of these schools in a van dangling candy to see if a naive college president will get in. Hardly. Media companies are in the business of buying media rights. The NCAA and member schools are the sellers, and have the sole authority over whether to sell those rights, for how much, and under what conditions. Nobody is forcing college presidents to sell media rights to the highest bidder. They can manage this just like AGNC, they just don’t want to. Why? Because the NCAA members are not working together. They are market competitors against each other. They compete for media rights dollars, athletic talent and administrative talent — just to name a few — in a multi-billion dollar industry. And they talk out of both sides of their mouths while running this industry.

Here is an example: From time to time, I will be broadcasting a game that is scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight. Depending upon the game televised in front of our game, there can be a “slide” of the starting time, perhaps 10 minutes. Quite often, a college administrator will vent to me that it is ridiculous that my company makes “these kids” play at such a late hour, and fans won’t get home until way after midnight.

I usually just let them vent. But sometimes I will explain to them that they can play their games whenever they want. They can schedule every game on Saturday or Sunday at noon, or play only on Fridays and Saturdays. When they play is entirely up to them. The issue they seem to struggle with is media companies will pay more to have the game televised in a later window. Like AGNC, the NCAA members can stick to their principles and values and schedule games at the times they prefer. Instead, they take the money and the increased exposure, and sell the right to determine the starting time of the game to a media company. In short, those decisions are made for money, plain and simple. There is nothing wrong with that — the only thing wrong is doing it and pretending like you’re not doing it. That is hypocritical.

The NCAA members talk a good game about competitive balance, but they don’t really care about that. They care about winning the biggest share of the still growing pie of money out there. If they truly cared about competitive balance, they would revenue share. That would provide the stability they claim to want. But they don’t revenue share, and they never will. They each want the money for themselves, now and into the future, above all.

Judging from the frenzied text messages and phone calls I received from Power 5 administrators, coaches and observers when news hit about Oregon and Washington, the latest phony apocalypse was upon us. It didn’t make sense to some, came out of nowhere to others, and signaled that college sports has “lost its way” to a few. There was a sense of shock, as if college sports was hit with a 100-year flood. It was not. It was business as usual.

This isn’t some new phenomenon. It has been going on for well over 30 years, and no reasonable person truly believed it was going to stop. Consider this: I played in the ACC when it consisted of eight teams. We rode a bus to five of our seven ACC road games. Our longest flight was from Durham, NC, to Maryland. While the ACC was eight teams, so was the Big 8. The Big East had nine teams. The Pac-8 had just expanded to the Pac-10 by adding Arizona and Arizona State, and the Big Ten had only — gasp! — 10 teams. What a quaint and seemingly ancient time.

Not long after I left college, the Big East expanded by adding Miami, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Louisville, Temple and West Virginia. Florida State joined the ACC. The Big Ten added Penn State and, later, Maryland. The Big 8 added Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech, and the once powerful Southwest Conference went away. Later, the ACC raided the Big East and took Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. They said it wasn’t about money, it was about markets and long-term stability – which, of course, means money.

Later, Missouri joined the SEC, Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Texas and Oklahoma were set to join the Pac 10, but later joined the SEC. USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, and Colorado joined the Big 12, after leaving the Big 12 to join the Pac-12 years ago.

And, current administrators have the gall to express surprise over Arizona, Arizona State and Utah leaving the Pac-12? The clear message is another hypocritical one: Changing conferences is only a problem when somebody else does it. When we do it, it is for a damn good reason: stability, getting more exposure for our athletes, blah blah blah. See, Hypocrisy and Lack of Self Awareness.

Coaches and administrators have been complaining to anyone that will listen about NIL and the transfer portal. Well, the transfer portal for schools changing conferences has been open forever, and has been churning like gangbusters for over 30 years. Nobody should be surprised.

And nobody should be surprised when the NCAA steps next in front of Congress begging for an antitrust exemption or a federal law that limits athlete compensation because “college sports is different,” “above the fray” and “not about money.” The NCAA will gloss over the decisions of its members that will burden players with NBA- and NFL-like travel, but limit them in what they can earn or accept, while the schools themselves have no conscience in chasing whatever payday they can find. Such assertions don’t pass the straight-face test. That will be just another exhibition of the shameless hypocrisy of college sports. Not shameless in that the enterprise is out to make money, because that is perfectly acceptable and entirely American. It is the shameless manner in which the NCAA acts exactly like the NFL and NBA but portrays itself as some “mom and pop shop” simply running the Little League World Series.

That is what hypocrisy looks like.

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