The news that New York Times columnist Joe Nocera is writing a book about college sports is likely to be greeted with anxious anticipation by those who do not like the NCAA. Mr. Nocera has been one of the NCAA’s harshest and most vocal critics, alongside Taylor Branch and Jay Bilas. Mr. Branch made waves last year with his article and ebook titled “The Shame of College Sports,” which at the time was considered to be the definitive work on the faults of the NCAA.
NCAA Criticisms are Pretty Frequent
The problem is definitive works on the problems in college sports seem to come by every couple of years. It was not so long ago that Beer and Circus, by Indiana University professor Murray Sperber, was supposed to be the book that took down the NCAA. Prof. Sperber wrote at a time when majority opposition to major college athletics was firmly on the side of bringing it back to the academic mission of universities. Now the pendulum has swung back to the side of professional college athletics, and will swing back again at some point.
Two other things should temper enthusiasm about Mr. Nocera’s book. The first is that his columns about the NCAA have been less than perfect when it comes to the NCAA rules. Whether that makes his points invalid is irrelevant, because it makes his points easier to dismiss. And he expects at some point to not be dismissed:
As he broadens his focus, he intends to press the people in power to make change where he thinks it’s needed. “For university presidents who profess to care so much about student life, it’s unbelievable how they’ve let the NCAA take away so many rights of people playing,” he said. “I hope they stop living in fear of the NCAA and come to their senses and say, ‘We’re the ones in control. We need to change this.’”
It’s the end of his first quote that shows the second reason to withhold judgment until the book comes out. Unlike Prof. Sperber, Mr. Branch, and Mr. Bilas, Mr. Nocera has yet to articulate a vision for college sports. Where an NCAA critic comes from says a lot about what their solutions will be. Murray Sperber is a professor, so he naturally argued for a return to academic focus. Taylor Branch is a civil rights historian, saw a civil rights problem, and suggested a civil rights solution (representation or voting by student-athletes on NCAA policy). Jay Bilas is a college basketball guy, and the stripped-down NCAA with a smaller Division I he proposes works fine in college basketball, but might not translate as well to other sports.
Joe Nocera came to write about college sports simply because of the injustices he saw with the NCAA. Given his background as a business and financial columnist along with his work on books in those areas like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Devils Are All Here, a call for stronger regulation both by and of the NCAA would seem likely. But instead, Mr. Nocera has bounced around both his topics and his solutions.
Which is why Joe Nocera and the NCAA need each other. The NCAA needs this book to be factually accurate, even if it disagrees with the commentary. For the next few years, this will be the book of record about the NCAA. Taylor Branch’s article was huge within the college sports community, but Mr. Nocera has more crossover appeal. His book is more likely to make the talk show circuit and get the public talking about the NCAA, for better or worse. Anything in this book, right or wrong, will be what the NCAA is to a large portion of the country.
Criticisms Should be Packaged with Solutions
Mr. Nocera needs a compelling and complete solution to the NCAA’s woes. Death to the BCS is a great book not just because it chronicles the faults of the bowl system, but because it presents a turn-key proposal to fix those problems. The proposal not only attacks the issues, but also is realistic in that it tries to give all the actors what they want, or at least satisfy as many people as possible. Most NCAA solutions are either unrealistic, like expecting schools to simply give up an activity their students and alumni enjoy; incomplete, by not explaining what will happen with nonrevenue sports; or rely on big assumptions, like that giving student-athletes a seat at the table will radically change the attitudes of schools.
Unprecedented access granted by the NCAA would be nice, but even if Joe Nocera was given the ability to look at the membership version of the NCAA’s Legislative Services Database, it would be a big help to both sides. It is not until you see not just the Manual but also the interpretations and education columns that one truly understands the complexity of NCAA regulation. Unwinding all that is hard. Throwing it out without knowing what is in it makes you likely to repeat old mistakes. And changing things without knowing how one rule links to another makes unintended consequences a certainty.
If the NCAA is Open With Nocera, the Likelihood this Book Sparks Real Change Increases
A book by Joe Nocera about the NCAA is not likely to be pleasant for the NCAA. The best the NCAA can hope for is for the standard disclaimer that the NCAA is full of good, well-intentioned people but that the organization is flawed. The NCAA can improve the odds of that outcome by offering Mr. Nocera a chance to see those people or at least see all of the nooks and crannies in the rules that make up the NCAA. And he is more likely to get a book that is the catalyst for real change in college sports.