Touchdowns for Jesus Play Book, Page 4: Sudden Change

two american football players pass action silhouetteIn football, when there is a sudden change, it usually means something that could change the course of the game is getting ready to happen.

A sudden change is when something like a fumble or an interception happens. Those sudden changes are not what alter the course of the game; it is what happens after them that can.

John tells me he tells the players he coaches that a sudden change is a time to pay special attention because it could lead to a big, big break. It’s a chance to turn something good into something really good. And it’s a time to make sure something bad doesn’t turn into something really, really bad.

Sudden change means all hands are on deck, at attention, ready, watchful, poised to capitalize on the opportunity that is before you.

Such a turning point moment is what we are seeing this summer with all the change happening in the NCAA. The NCAA Board of Directors has voted to change its own structure and the verdict on the O’Bannon trial is in. Any way you cut it, business as usual is no longer possible for the NCAA.

These changes are about power; these changes are about how decisions get made and who gets to make them. These changes are about who benefits from the wealth generated by big-time sports and how. These changes open up possibilities for good things to happen; and, these changes create dicey situations in which already existing problems could lead to even greater deficits.

Something that could be a game changer is occurring. Now is the time for all the stakeholders, all the people who love sports, and all who care about justice to be at attention, ready, watchful, and poised to make the best out of the opportunity before us.

Some people herald the potential shift toward the “Big 5” conferences having (some) autonomy as a new day for things like players’ rights and full funding for the cost of education for students-athletes. Those who support the changes voted on by the NCAA this week believe that finally these conferences, who are able to supplement their scholarships, will get to do so and not be held back by those schools and conferences who can’t afford to the same.

This is certainly potentially good news for the players skilled and coveted enough to play for the schools in the Big 10, Big 12, SEC, ACC, and PAC 12 conferences. While it is not clear exactly what will emerge that could change the game for players from the Big 5 autonomy, there is the potential for these players to have the actual expenses of attending a university covered by their scholarships. There is also the potential for a player representative to have an actual vote on some of the voting bodies of the new decision making system. Couple this shift with the O’Bannon verdict that allows for players to benefit from the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL), and there are some things possible that are definitely game-changers.

Others, however, herald the movement toward the richest conferences having more power, more autonomy, and less incentive (if any) to share their wealth, as another nail in the coffin of equity and fairness in big-time college sports. These skeptics of the NCAA vote believe that now the biggest and the richest will get bigger and richer. It will only be easier for them to lure the best players away from the schools who are scratching and clawing their way into competitiveness with the elite football and basketball schools. And how the O’Bannon verdict plays into this fear of growing inequity will be interesting to gauge.

As with the potential for big payoffs with a possession change like a fumble or interception, there is a chance for a big pay off with this NCAA version of sudden change—the question is: for who?

There are several penalty flags that need to fly in this power play if we look at it through the lens of the deepest and most profound problems that plague big-time sports in college (the kind of exploring I invite you to do in my new book). And these penalty flags fly because it is important who gets the pay off.  This very question encompasses many of the most pressing issues in big-time sports today.

Human history has proven over and over again, that changes made under duress or in times of crisis rarely excavate the root causes of the problems that need changing. And so, these problems often re-emerge in other forms. The Jim Crow South is a perfect example: slavery was replaced with different forms of inequity and injustice. Racism just got more creative; it didn’t go away.

The first penalty flag that needs throwing in this sudden change in the NCAA concerns race. The problem with the changes as they currently stand is that nothing about them invites any attention to the statistically proven fact of racialized disadvantage in college revenue sports. Nothing about these changes invites any attention to the way privilege has helped to form the systems in question.

A second penalty flag is about power. In the up-for-grabs power disbursement that comes in times of transition and change, like this one, justice-seekers must always look for concentrations of power and power deficits. The Student-Athletes at Northwestern requested to unionize to send an important message to the world of big-time college revenue sports. The players want and need to have a say in the systems and decisions that so deeply affect their lives. And that pressure for more power, for more say from the players has gotten some attention. The O’Bannon verdict, too, signals the necessity of increased room for player’s rights and agency to be exercised.

The responses so far of the NCAA to these calls for shared power with players, however, does little to honor the capability of players to organize and advocate for themselves. These responses do not acknowledge the fact that all players do not have the same interests. The response instead is a tiny gesture—a seat or two at the table dominated by university administrators. A vote or two in the pool of votes that continue to be made up of people who are not players or even coaches, who work most closely with the players. The response amounts to the proverbial drop in the bucket.

The final penalty flag has to do with what appears to be an “illegal formation” by the NCAA. That is, the most drastic response by the NCAA so far may violate the whole reason the NCAA exists in the first place. The NCAA’s vote to give the Big 5 autonomy over a great deal of their operations is a violation of their own principals.

A quick trip through the NCAA website gives us several examples of how the NCAA describes its own reason for being:  “Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner.” If the NCAA is there to create and maintain standards of fairness, rules of the game, and ways to insure a collective stake in the bigger picture, then this sudden change may be a recipe for its own demise.

I am not sure how the changes afoot will help the NCAA stay in tact in an already hostile environment. Their recent vote may just have made them even more obsolete and ill-fitted for the tasks at hand in big-time sports.

To that end, this is a great time to discern what shared stake there is in the world of big-time sports these days anyway. There are many things, to be sure, that require a collective will and a shared commitment in order to create fairness, safety, and opportunity for all involved. How do the changes before us create an opportunity for new clarity about what this whole enterprise is about in the first place?

The game of big-time sports is certainly at a turning point. The fortunes of many hang in the balance. Whatever happens next there is a chance to make something good turn into something really good. Or something bad could become worse.

Before a truly good turn of events can happen in college revenue sports, we have to be honest about what is at stake. The hard part is the answer to that question is going to vary wildly depending on who you ask. Unlike a football game where the clear goal is to win, the high stakes game of big-time sports has to get some clarity about what really matters the most. Otherwise, a sudden change will bring little more than a new way of doing the same old thing.

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