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Buzz Bissinger on How He’d Blow Up (And Fix) the NCAA

Let’s count the ways that the NCAA is a joke:

  1. College football and basketball are multi-billion dollar industries predicated on the unpaid labor of student-athletes.
  2. These “student”-athletes are allowed to schedule their classes around their athletic schedules.
  3. A recent FBI investigation into NCAA basketball revealed a Byzantine system for paying players, implicating some of the most high-profile coaches in the sport.
  4. Even people who defend the NCAA do so on the grounds that not paying athletes is necessary for the continued prosperity of collegiate athletics — which is not so much a refutation of exploitation, as it is a tautology in favor of it.

Taken together, it’s led many to believe that the only way to save NCAA athletics is to dismantle the NCAA altogether.

Among the foremost proponents of this scorched-Earth policy: Famed sportswriter Buzz Bissinger.

“The system is openly hypocritical,” he tells me. “It’s built on the delusion that these really are student-athletes, and that they are parts of the university. Which is ridiculous. It’s a farce.”

The first time I heard the argument for dismantling the NCAA was six years ago, when Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, and fellow New York Times bestselling writer Malcolm Gladwell teamed up for a two-on-two debate against professional bloviator Jason Whitlock and former NFL defensive end Tim Green.

The debate was ostensibly about the dangers of head trauma in football, and how the sport causes a host of degenerative neurological conditions later in life. But Bissinger used the platform to argue for the dissolution of NCAA football completely. Major college football is so large, and demands so many resources, that it inevitably detracts from the university’s academic position, he argued. Not to mention, eliminating the current system also would get rid of the charade of amateurism in college sports and allow players to get paid.

It’s an idea that’s gained considerable steam over the ensuing years — most of all among former players:

Yet, the implementation of college sports without the NCAA hasn’t found nearly as much consensus.

Bissinger’s own proposal is to have each university license their name, logo and mascot to a private entity that functions as a professional sports franchise. It would still be the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, but the football operations would be completely removed from the university. “The entity would be responsible for recruiting, coaching, stadium upkeep, etc., and it would pay the university a licensing fee,” Bissinger says. “These entities will offer players whatever they want [compensation-wise]. That way, players are there to play, and don’t operate under the sham that they’re at the university to study.”

Bissinger admits that his idea is convoluted, but it does alleviate some of the fears people have about paying college players. While many fans believe college players should be paid in theory, they fear that paying players will inevitably lead to the creation of a minor league system that’s totally disconnected from their beloved universities.

Indeed, the NCAA has effectively argued this very point to the Supreme Court, saying that the only thing that separates the NCAA from pro sports leagues — and the only thing that gives it its entertainment value — is the amateurism of its athletes. (This assertion is currently being challenged in court by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon.)

Bissinger’s is a kind of best-of-both-worlds scenario — players get paid, and fans still get to root for their alma mater. And it’s not so much a change to the current system, as it is making the current under-the-table dealmaking transparent.

“I remember Cam Newton’s father saying, ‘I should get paid $200,000,’ and everyone was aghast. But he’s right. How many millions did Cam Newton generate for Auburn? How many millions did Johnny Manziel generate for Texas A&M?” Bissinger asks. “[In my system], players would essentially be free agents, which I think is fair.”

There is a worry that this will create a caste system, where only the most successful schools can afford good players. But this, too, is no different than the current NCAA system, Bissinger says. Name-brand college football and basketball programs — the Texases, Michigans, Ohio States, Oregons, North Carolinas and Dukes of the world — already have enough money and name recognition to lure the best recruits, and pay for the best facilities and coaches.

It’s a radical idea to radical problem — so radical, in fact, that even Bissinger doubts it will ever get implemented. “I’m glad that [the corruption] has come out in the open. But will things change? No. When there’s so much money involved, it’s hard to enact change. There will be slaps on the wrist, and the NCAA might increase its stipend to players, but there will be no comprehensive change.”

Like I said, a total joke.