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The lost mission of the NCAA

“The NCAA was founded in 1906 to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time. Today, student-athlete health, safety and well-being remain among our top priorities.”

This is how the governing body for major college athletics, describes itself on its website. At Tuesday’s postgame press conference with several players from the University of Connecticut national champion women’s basketball team, the NCAA’s moderator incessantly referred to them as “student-athletes”—not “players,” not “ladies.”

It felt scripted, like she was instructed to use the phrase to convince viewers that these players are college students, not assets, not employees. It also felt disingenuous for anyone who is familiar with the NCAA and the major college sports industry.

While the NCAA might once have prioritized player safety and well-being, its primary function now is to make money and help universities do the same. In 2013 the NCAA recorded a net surplus of more than $60 million for the third consecutive year and had more than $620 million in total assets. While this doesn’t all happen at the expense of the athletes, the NCAA’s claim of putting students first is dubious. In many ways the athletes are merely resources used to maximize profits.

Player images and numbers are used in video games earning the NCAA licensing fees, but since no athlete names are used, the players see none of that revenue. Schools make enormous amounts of money from team merchandise, including player jerseys. Media outlets pay huge sums of money for the rights to show basketball and football games. Ticket revenues number in the hundred of millions of dollars. Rules allow schools to recruit “student” athletes who will only stay for a year and then turn professional, meaning they have no need to maintain academic eligibility. Of course, the NCAA, while claiming academic standards as a key tenet, fails to enforce them fairly or well.

The image the NCAA presents simply does not match the reality it has created. It is a picture-perfect case of an organization that has lost its identity by losing sight of its mission. The older an organization gets the more likely such drift is to occur. Leadership transitions, contextual and cultural changes, and basic inertia or human failure all contribute. The NCAA once existed to protect players but morphed into an organization that uses them. Sure, they offer scholarships and some benefits, but they milk athletes for all they can offer. They insist on presenting players as “students” without prioritizing academics or graduation. The NCAA hides behind a thin veneer.

Mission focus is essential for any organization. Without it good intentions become valueless, or even harmful. It happens to publishers, churches, schools, and businesses alike. All organizations need regular reiteration and reemphasis of core values. Every new leader or generation of leaders must adopt these values and determine how they fit new contexts without surrendering them. The NCAA stopped doing this, and the resulting loss of identity has created a real mess.

Barnabas Piper Barnabas is a former WORLD correspondent.


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