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Deford: College Presidents Should Stand Up to the NCAA

Frank Deford of NPR has another piece of advice for college presidents:

But I have a similar quest. I seek one prominent college president to say to her trustees or to the other presidents in his conference: “The NCAA is a sham and disgrace. Let’s get out of it.”

We know those presidents who disdain the NCAA are out there, but, alas, none dare speak the words that will break the evil spell.

There’s two problems with Deford’s mission. First is that finding a college president who will speak out against an organization that has elevated that group to its highest place of power and reverence is tough. I am sure, like Deford is, that there are college presidents who hate the NCAA. But I am equally sure they do not hate the NCAA as a concept. Rather they hate some aspect of the NCAA or some specific NCAA rule(s).

The second problem is that Deford needs to be careful what he wishes for. A college president who speaks out against the NCAA may be fighting for exactly the opposite of what Deford argues for:

Basically, the NCAA has only two functions: to put on championship tournaments; and to enforce its own crazy-quilt rules. Sure, everybody likes championships, but colleges could outsource them to all sorts of other organizations. American Idol could run sports championships, I’m sure; so could Antiques Roadshow. And each athletic division, each conference should make specific rules best for itself.

Anti-NCAA college presidents might end up fighting for an even stronger organization, one with the power to control costs, enforce higher academic standards, and bring college athletics closer to the central mission of the university. That is in stark contrast to the loose confederation of conferences that Deford proposes.

Whenever someone argues that college presidents should do something with the NCAA, they need to also explain exactly what college presidents should do and, even more importantly, why they would do it. When Seth Davis argued college presidents should give up control of the NCAA, he did not say to whom they should cede control. Likewise, Deford needs to explain how colleges and conferences would organize themselves with such loose bonds between them.

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