The NCAA is a financial juggernaut. Each year, the organization generates nearly a billion dollars of revenue premised largely on its perceived status as shepherd of the amateur ideal. Indeed, the NCAA takes great pains to cultivate that image by, among other things, reminding us that most student-athletes “go pro in something other than sports.”
It is strange, therefore, that the NCAA would allow sloth and lack of money to endanger its public image. Yet that is just what it does. In particular, the NCAA’s failure to invest in an efficient system by which to confirm student-athletes’ eligibility opens the organization to charges of hypocrisy. How can an organization that purports to care for the well-being of student-athletes — much less one that depends on that labor force to generate its enormous riches — apply procedures that are so hostile to those same student-athletes?
Money is not the reason, but money is a big part of the story. One thing that the NCAA does not lack is money. The organization sits on top of approximately $500 million in assets, and the NCAA annually generates approximately $850 million in new revenue mainly from its television contracts . Over 95 percent of that money is returned to member institutions. By contrast, only about 4 percent of the NCAA’s annual budget is retained by the organization to cover all “administrative” expenses. Enforcement of the NCAA’s rules and eligibility standards for its 1,066 active member institutions is merely one of countless administrative services that must share that measly 4 percent.
Not surprisingly, the NCAA’s failure to invest in administrative infrastructure renders its staff unable to keep up with its workload. Currently, staffers must investigate suggestions of violations of the NCAA’s byzantine rule-book at all member institutions and confirm the eligibility of all student-athletes each season based on collegiate and/or high-school academic performance. Those investigations can cover anything from impermissible benefits provided by agents to sham classes from “diploma mill” high schools.
As a result of its underfunded staff and heavy workload, many of the NCAA’s eligibility determinations are not made until well after student-athletes have enrolled at a school. Indeed, may incoming freshmen athletes still await final eligibility determinations even after they have already completed substantial summer-school coursework and athletic practices at their new college. Moreover, the NCAA’s self-imposed staffing shortage has forced the organization to adopt a policy that eligibility determinations can be revisited at any time in the future. In other words, players are eligible unless the NCAA retroactively says they’re not — slim comfort for schools with rabid fanbases, hard-won reputations, and millions of dollars at stake.
The consequences of this current system are severe for both students and member-institutions. Students are not allowed to participate in athletic competitions or, in some cases, even practice with their team and coaches. They are also not allowed to travel with their teammates on pre-season exhibition tours that often prove to be catalysts of team chemistry and extra development of their skills. Some of them also miss out on the TV exposure and intensive coaching attention that is critical to their ability to play their sport professionally. The schools are also burdened because, while they await an eligibility determination from the NCAA, they face a Hobson’s choice — gambling that the NCAA will eventually declare the athlete eligible upon penalty of forfeiting wins, scholarship and recruiting restrictions, and financial penalties if they guess “wrong” and inadvertently allow a later-declared-ineligible athlete to participate in games.
A few examples from men’s basketball illustrate some of the injustices perpetrated by the current, flawed system:
- Long after Myles Davis enrolled at Xavier University, the NCAA invalidated his high-school credits and declared him academically ineligible to play basketball. The NCAA determined that his high school was insufficiently rigorous … despite declaring players from that high school eligible in several preceding years. Davis lost his scholarship, and his father stated that he would be forced to obtain a $30,000 loan so that his son could finish the semester/year at Xavier.
- Another victim of the same late decision was Davis’s classmate, Sam Cassell, Jr., who was rendered ineligible to play basketball at the University of Maryland. That decision forced him to withdraw from Maryland and has enrolled in a junior college at which he can play basketball.
- One of the most exciting freshman players remains in limbo even at this late date. Shabazz Muhammad has attended UCLA for months, yet the NCAA continues to investigate his eligibility with no decision on the horizon. He was forced to miss his team’s trip to China in August and all team practices before mid-October. UCLA’s season begins in only a few weeks. Should UCLA take the chance that the NCAA would wipe out its season if it gambled wrong by allowing Muhammad to play?
There is no good reason for the NCAA’s sluggish pace of issuing eligibility determinations. The NCAA has plenty of money with which it could hire an army of staffers to complete these determinations quickly, and most of the eligibility questions surrounding at least the top prospects each year are well known to both the media and the NCAA many months before the student-athletes enroll in their chosen colleges. Why wait so long to investigate them? Why issue a decision so late that it effectively forces a student-athlete to give up one-half of that title at his/her college? There is no good answer.
The NCAA needs to put its money where its mouth is: hire enough investigators to issue all eligibility decisions before Fall classes begin, so that students and member institutions are not left in limbo or penalized for their inability to predict the NCAA’s decision. The NCAA’s core constituency is students not money. It should part with some of the latter to promote the welfare of the former.
Stephen A. Miller is an attorney in Cozen O’Connor’s Philadelphia office, where his practice includes the representation of student-athletes in eligibility disputes with the NCAA. Prior to joining Cozen O’Connor, he clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and served as a federal prosecutor for nine years in the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.