How Big 12 negotiations further erode the NCAA's farcical "principle of amateurism"

Los Angeles Sparks guard and Oklahoma State University alum Andrea Riley said that "everything happens for a reason". Live or die, that reason will be television contracts for the Big 12. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

Who on earth do these people think they are fooling?

The only thing that has been resolved with yesterday's announcements that the Big 12 will in fact survive is pretty much the same thing we could have come up with when the NCAA infractions committee released its report on USC last week. It was put most succinctly by CollegeFootballNews.com's Pete Fiutak:

"First, this is about business at the highest level; this isn’t necessarily a sports story."

As SBN's Andrew Sharp describes in depth, the entire notion that the NCAA abides by any sort of "principle of amateurism" is a farce. Sharp's piece -- which is long, but worth the read as an analysis of just how absurd and corrupt the NCAA has become -- essentially revolves around the following excerpt:

Reggie Bush, Realignment, Recruting Violations, Etc: The NCAA Should Give Itself The Death Penalty - SBNation.com
See, on the surface, it works. The idea that sports agents and their associates could strike a fatal blow at a "Principle of Amateurism" seems reasonable enough. Same with the notion that "participation in intercollegiate athletics should be motivated primarily by education, and by the physical, mental, and social benefits to be derived." All these ideas make sense in theory. But coming from the NCAA, downright insulting.

Like they're the foil in a bad morality play, except nobody's picking up on the motif here.

Because, sure, participating in amateur athletics should be motivated by those things, but what about the people governing them? How can an organization that exists solely to generate more revenue from these "intercollegiate athletics" stand there with a straight face, telling athletes that their sole purpose in all of this is to be gratified with "physical, mental and social benefits."

With the NCAA, it's "do as we say, and look the other way when we do the exact opposite."

When framed in terms as stark as Fiutak's or well-reasoned as Sharp's it becomes painfully obvious that what we're seeing from the NCAA is a complete lack of integrity, which essentially has three components: distinguishing right from wrong, acting upon what you decide, and a willingness to act upon your beliefs even at the risk of being unpopular. Apparently, the grown ups in charge of upholding the NCAA's "principle of amateurism" have a difficult time modeling the principles they claim to uphold when it comes to lining their own pockets.

None of this is to say that anyone believes that the Big 12 realignment talks represent a "loss of innocence" for college sports -- most undergraduates would probably find it difficult to even identify a time when college sports weren't about business over sport, much less academics. And really, given the mess at USC that is nicely overshadowed by this realignment nonsense, this doesn't even represent floodgates being opened -- they were clearly wide open when both men's basketball guard OJ Mayo and football running back Reggie Bush were effectively playing semi-pro ball at USC.

While we're on the subject of the Pac-10, let's not pretend that they are innocent bystanders in this situation, though certainly overshadowed by the Big 12's childish bickering. As Steve Duin of the Oregonian wrote, what this situation in its entirety represents is that in the quest to restore sanity to the farcical "principle of amateurism", help is simply not on the way.

The Pacific-16 Conference: Survival of the fattest | OregonLive.com
In the Pacific-10's imminent decision to expand to 16 teams, we have the triumph of gluttony over moderation, crass over class, John Calipari over John Wooden.

What's more, we might have our final proof that the university presidents who have sanctioned this money-grubbing, power-grabbing madness are not watchdogs but water boys for athletic departments run amok.

The gatekeepers who once aspired to restore sanity to intercollegiate athletics have been blinded by their earning potential.

As an educator who has worked with undergraduates, I confess that the thing I find most troubling is that business also so clearly takes precedent over the primary function of so many institutions of higher education: to educate. Ironically, they seem to remain blind to their primary mission even when national business and political leaders suggest that U.S. graduates aren't adequately prepared to compete in the global economy. Regardless of whether you buy that aim for education, the fact that sports seems to garner far more attention from university leaders than the fact that we are an increasingly illiterate society is frightening.

Yet somehow, these same administrators who can't seem to figure out how to more effectively teach undergraduates to compose a coherent paragraph manage to move mountains when it comes to seeking more lucrative television contracts to broadcast football that will ultimately line their pockets, regardless of whether it benefits students, student-athletes, or even the communities of fans who support their programs.

Therein lies the sports story.

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Iowa State women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly (@ISUCoachFen) on the Big 12's realignment talks.

ESPN's Mechelle Voepel wrote a blog last week that presented the "sports story" for arguably the largest group of stakeholders affected by the prospect of the Big 12 dissolving: the fans.

If Big 12 breaks up, fans support is one of the legacies " Mechelle Voepel
For women’s basketball fans, who formed their own almost-always civil and supportive community on-line (at HoopScoop.net) and in the stands/at restaurants when they visited with each other, it did become a group of brothers and sisters who cared for each other – and also cared very much about all the young women who played at every Big 12 school, not just their own team.

I don’t feel the least bit cornball writing that. I witnessed the very best attributes of fandom for the last 14 years with what I saw consistently from the majority of Big 12 women’s basketball fans.

There will be some genuine tears shed by those folks if they are no longer together as a group – cheering as hard "for" each other in out-of-conference matchups as they did "against" each other in league battles _ but they can take great pride in what they did to elevate this sport over the past decade-plus.

For the record, I do feel cornball for extending this. Nevertheless, what Voepel rightly points out is a very real story about what is humanly at stake in the survival of the Big 12. People have built a culture around the Big 12. We're not just talking about showing up at games with face paint on. We're talking about people who literally hate some other institution of higher education across the state and love their own conference so much that they demand their children attend a Big 12 school.

In Anna Clark's top ten reasons for being a feminist sports fan, #2 was that "sports are visionary" and in being "the very best attributes of fandom" the Big 12 culture that Voepel describes is also the very best of humanity: people creating connections despite differences, building community even in rivalry, and showing up to the game even when the chips are down. Those are powerful, powerful human stories that may not always be transformative or even inspiring but in many ways truly represent the best of human relations.

However, the thing that I most appreciated about Voepel's story is that it was not only a sports story under a pile of business stories, but also a women's basketball story in a world dominated by football. It's not that I have anything against football, but it does point out that what we have apparently lost in this insane whirlwind of "power-grubbing madness" is that this whole thing is ultimately about the "physical, mental and social benefits" to the people who are actually playing the games, whether for the free education or love of the game (and I'm not mad at either personally).

At the heart of this whole matter should be the student-athletes themselves, not only how it influences that oft-overlooked free education part, but also what it means to them to be a part of the Big 12 legacy. Whether they play football, gymnastics, or shooting sports there is an individual sports story that unfolds every time an athlete puts on their school's colors and competes.

"I think the rivalries would be missed more than anything," Los Angeles Sparks guard and former Oklahoma State University alum Andrea Riley told Swish Appeal before last Friday's game in Seattle. "When you play in the Big 12 it's a fight every night."

However, beyond the nightly fights, there's a personal element to playing in a conference like the Big 12 that might be a bit different than that of the fans.

"It just makes me sad," said Seattle Storm point guard and Iowa State alum Alison Lacey at Storm practice on Sunday prior to the news that the conference may in fact survive. "It's the Big 12 -- that's my conference. That's my school and that it might not happen anymore it just makes me sad."

The combination of the intense competition described by Riley, the fans that both Voepel described and Lacey discussed with freelantz in a pre-season interview, and just representing the school nightly and the conference in tournament play creates a connection to a school legacy and a community of players that quite simply deserves more respect that it has gotten.

It's not just that the success is really the collective accomplishment of every player that comes through in the process of building up a program like Iowa State women's basketball, but it's the relationships that people build, even the forms of community built simply by putting on the same uniform as someone who attended the school 15 years prior to you. That can neither be quantified nor exchanged for a more lucrative television contract.

For Lacey -- an Australian who has not been home in five years and made Ames, Iowa her first home in the States -- the Big 12 legacy and strength of the conference was part of the reason she even chose the school.

"The strength of that conference is a huge part," said Lacey when asked about whether playing in the Big 12 influenced her decision making when coming over to the states. "You get to play against the best -- our school, you get to play against Kansas, Nebraska. So definitely it was part of my decision to go to Iowa State."

Of course, everybody thinks their school is the best and it's not like a Big 12 alum is going to openly say that some other conference is the best. However, that misses the point that these conferences mean a lot more to the student-athletes in terms of "physical, mental and social benefits" than television contracts.That's partially because, of course, as amateurs they're not allowed to actually touch any of the money they earn for the greedy administrators. But also partially because sports, as described by Clark as the #1 reason she's a feminist sports fan, are fundamentally joyful.

The value of women's sports in the lives of athletes and creating role models for aspiring athletes is well documented and certainly important. But the whole point of the "principle of amateurism", of all the rhetoric about the purity of college sports, and of that One Shining Moment song (that should only be sung by David Barrett, Teddy Pendergrass, or Luther Vandross) is that this is fundamentally supposed to remain primarily about the joy of playing sports and sharing those moments as part of that community. The myriad individual sports stories that come together to produce neatly condensed headlines for consumption, also create bonds between athletes, their peers, and a legacy of those who came before and after them. Shockingly, those very basic joys of sport aren't confined to football.

Idealistic? Check (I was once a young elementary/middle school teacher who believed I could change the world). Difficult to uphold? Check. Impossible to achieve? Not with responsible adults focused on maintaining sanity.

"I don't know what they're going to do," said Riley. "But, you know, everything happens for a reason. So you never know."

Yep, everything does happen for a reason. In this case, the reason for the Big 12 staying together will ultimately be the same reason it was supposed to fall apart -- potentially doubled football television revenues. As Andy Katz wrote, this isn't a miracle folks.

While working with 15-year-old boys this past year, my friend and I briefly discussed with them what it really means to be a gangster: it's not just "getting yours" like the little wannabe thugs think -- it's getting yours, making sure nobody else gets theirs, and having the power to bend or change the rules as necessary to both protect your newfound privileges and/or rationalize your actions. The so-called leaders who pulled this Big 12 deal off are straight up gangsters without the courage to tell us to our faces. That's weak.

So perhaps the only way to establish integrity or "restore" sanity to the NCAA is to just quit lying to us -- distinguish the "principle of amateurism" from "the principle of C.R.E.A.M.", freely chase money without moral conflict and substitute "economic benefits" for all that other touchy feely stuff, and don't be afraid to adopt an unpopular theme song that better represents your overarching mission.

Related Links:

PAC What?
Big 12 women's basketball coaches critical of possible changes
Women's basketball expenses/revenues for potential Pac-10/Big 12 merged superconference
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