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Why the NCAA has striking similarities to another industry

Ari Russell



In light of the recent federal cases around illegal activities associated with sneaker companies and major college hoops programs that also revealed activities in college football I wanted to revisit a little something I had written several years ago. What also made me think of this was the recent news that Clemson has agreed to a major contract extension for Dabo Swinney giving him $93 million over ten years.

I have always been a vocal critic of the NCAA and how much of a farce the notion of amateurism is in major college athletics. Keep in mind this isn’t a serious analogy I was making, it was more to be funny, but I wanted to reshare it considering we are right in the middle of the NFL Draft and all of the news is certainly pertinent for this topic. So here you go:  

I don’t know about you, but I find something strange with how the NCAA conducts their enforcement business. Here we have a multi-billion dollar industry where the product doesn’t share in any of the profits but yet suffers the consequences if certain rules and regulations are broken. It has striking similarities to the drug game in that the way enforcement is conductive allows for exploitation and insulates those who profit the most.  

Think about it, the cartels own all aspects of the industry, from pricing to distribution, to protection from enforcement. Below the kingpins are middle men, who manage the day to day operations and make sure that all invested product turns a profit. The middle men have various people in locations that serve as heads of territory. The leaders of territory work for the middle men, as their profits are dependent upon the supply from above. The better they do in selling their product, the more of a cut they will receive.

The heads of territory have all sorts of folks below them that spread out responsibility within that terrain. Some will be looking after a neighborhood, while others are lookouts and runners. At the bottom are the customers, or in the drug game, the junkies. These are the guys who’s only stake in the game is to get high and they seek none of the financial rewards.

Now let’s look at the world of major college athletics. Here we have the college presidents who have all of the power. They control the pricing and distribution of the product. In addition, since they make up the NCAA, they have full protection from enforcement. At least in the drug game you have the FBI and DEA, even though they can be bought. In the world of college athletics there is no one overseeing the NCAA. School presidents and sometimes school chancellors are responsible for hiring Athletic Directors.

The ADs are similar to the middle men in the drug game. They recruit and hire leaders of territory aka coaches. Coaches in turn hire staffs to help them oversee their terrain. Below the coaches and their collective staffs are the players. Sure they get college scholarships, which has a tremendous amount of value, but they don’t actually benefit directly from the profits made on their backs. The compensation isn’t relevant to the profits made from their labor.  They are at the bottom of this food chain.

Okay my analogy is full of hyperbole and I’m kind of being tongue and cheek, but let’s look at enforcement. How often do drug kingpins go to jail? Hardly ever and when they do it is for something like tax evasion. Middle men sometimes get caught and they can suffer the consequences. The leaders of territory get caught a lot too, but they usually are at a high enough level that their punishments are usually reduced, especially when they cooperate with law enforcement. They also have the resources to hire quality council which can mitigate the damage.

The customers in the drug game, or the junkies pay the heaviest price. They always get caught, and they always go to jail, sometimes many times. They don’t have the resources for proper council, and oftentimes are used as informants, which put them at even higher risk and make them even more expendable.  

In the world of college sports, school presidents never get in trouble. Athletic Directors get fired sometimes, sometimes for breaking a rule, but mainly for not performing well. Coaches get fired all the time, and sometimes are forced out of the game. The student athletes always get caught, and lose their eligibility. Sometimes they get in so much trouble that others that come after them get swept up in the aftermath and have to pay the price. We have countless examples of this. Even public opinion is imbalanced.

Notice how it seems many people blame the kids and their families for getting caught and hardly are critical of the people at the top? Similar to people blaming the junkies and are okay with them receiving harsh penalties and seemingly give the kingpins the passes.

Tell me where this makes sense? Tell me why it has to be this way? The issues are larger than Coaches and ADs. It starts at the very top, at the people who make up the NCAA. The school presidents are the real problem, and until they can be held accountable, the NCAA can create all the rules they want, it will never clean up this mess.

There is no watchdog over the NCAA, the school presidents write the rules to protect themselves. The are completely insulated. The exploitation will continue as long as society allows for it. There is indeed recourse to make proper changes, just not sure the will.

But that could change.  

Born in the Nation’s Capital, Washington D.C., Ari Russell watched the rise of the 1980’s Miami Hurricanes and knew that he had to be part of the “U” someday. After graduating from Coral Gables, Ari rose through the ranks of the former XM Satellite Radio and then Sirius/XM as college football executive producer. He later spent 2 seasons as the publisher of the website “Beyond U Sports” focusing on major college football/basketball. Ari brings a great perspective on everything Miami, including the Dolphins to F.F.I.