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Ben Smith

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Losing suit might help NCAA find ideals again

This is how it comes apart, with measured words spoken softly in a court of law.

The roar of collapsing monoliths may come later, but for now, this will do: Jim Delany on the stand, inadvertently revealing what the NCAA would be, were it not what it is.

They put Delany on the griddle last week in Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA, and he spun fantasies devoutly to be wished. Said once college basketball ends, “we should put a lock on the gym.” Said athletes should spend their summers doing something besides serving the corporate interests of the universities that employ them – like, oh, maybe let them be students for once.

Everything he said was absolutely right. And everything he said will likely never happen again unless the NCAA does what it’s accusing the plaintiffs in this case of trying to do, which is blow the whole deal to matchsticks.

That’s the only way this gets back to the wish-dreams of Delany, or the fevered delusions of NCAA chief Mark Emmert, who swore under oath that what he presides over is as amateur as tiddlywinks on a playground. Delany pounding the drums for summers off, study abroad, multiyear scholarships and freshman ineligibility only underlined how far the NCAA has gotten from its ideal.

The skinny is the NCAA began deserting its own principles the moment it first turned its student-athletes into human billboards by allowing apparel companies to slap logos on them. They paid for the privilege, of course, and other businesses paid for other privileges, and pretty soon the NCAA was nothing but an umbrella organization protecting not its student-athletes but a multibillion-dollar corporate brand.

Little wonder that student-athletes in high-dollar programs have come to see themselves as the workforce for that brand, with the same right to organize and protect itself as any workforce should have. Little wonder O’Bannon and other athletes have taken the organization to court over the NCAA’s claim that it has the right, in perpetuity, to use its workforce’s images without compensation.

Little wonder, too, that the NCAA has gone into cringe mode in recent months, even offering to take the pruning shears to its rulebook. And last week, Indiana University unveiled a Student-Athlete Bill of Rights, the key provisions of which are guaranteed four-year scholarships for all athletes and a Lifetime Degree Guarantee.

It’s a step in the right direction, taken by an individual school. But the NCAA as a whole remains trapped by its own construct.

Delany was as right last week, but how do you let, say, college football players study abroad in the summers when college football has become such a huge engine of commerce? How does a Nick Saban justify his overblown salary if you pull the plug on the ginormous corporate entity that is Alabama football?

And what forces would bring what pressures if, for the sake of your once-upon-a-time ideal, you did try to rein in the corporate brand?

That well-appointed horse long since fled its well-appointed barn, and it’s not coming back. Not unless you dynamite the barn and start over again – looking to your own small-market schools and conferences as a model because there, the preferred ideal still exists.

O’Bannon winning his suit might be the first step in that direction. And in that regard, Jim Delany might wind up saving this village by helping to destroy it.

Put a lock on the gym?

Shoot. Put a lock on the whole thing.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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