Give Mark Emmert credit. He knew all along that a bagel with cream cheese constituted a meal only in the perverse, collective imagination of the NCAA, of which he is president. Darned if he isn’t fixing that silly rule, and in just four quick years after he left the University of Washington presidency.
“The biggest problem was, the NCAA has historically had all kinds of, I don’t know how to describe it (except to say) dumb rules about food,” Emmert said on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” show Friday morning. “The infamous one is you can provide between meals a snack, but you can’t provide a meal. Well, then you got to define what’s the difference between a snack and a meal? So it was literally the case that a bagel was defined as a snack — unless you put cream cheese on it. Now it becomes a meal. That’s absurd.”
As you may have heard, the NCAA this week approved reforms that would provide unlimited meal service for scholarship athletes. The changes, he said, had been in the works for two years. So it was mere coincidence that news of the changes came shortly after Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut guard who was MVP of the Final Four, made national headlines in a televised interview that said he had numerous nights of going to bed “starving.”
Later in the interview, Emmert said that the timing was coincidence. I tend to believe him. What I don’t believe that Emmert and all the king’s men will be able to put the NCAA back together again, at least in any form recognizable as Humpty Dumpty, by decriminalizing cream cheese.
Inane and notorious as was the bagel rule, which permitted schools to offer bagels, fruits and nuts to athletes at any time, but prohibited offering spreads such as cream cheese or peanut butter with the bagels — that was an impermissible “meal” — it was not a by-law left over from some musty Ivy League nitwit from the 1950s.
The bylaw was adopted in 2009, when big TV money was already washing over the big-time college sports landscape, exposing hypocrisy after hypocrisy.
As recently as February, three Oklahoma football players were busted for a similar nutritional felony — eating too much pasta at a team celebration. The school turned them in, they were cited by the NCAA and forced to donate $3.83 per player to charity.
Beyond fodder for a grateful cadre of late-night comedians, the NCAA absurdities are providing career boosts to a brigade of lawyers who sense “big tobacco” money, the kind of reward when truths about a giant industry are finally exposed in ways everyone can understand.
My analogy is to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The USSR didn’t fail because of some military assault from the West, it failed because its own massive bureaucracy designed to prop up a corrupt, inefficient system that tried to circumscribe behavior, finally provoked revolution.
NCAA observer John Infante, a former compliance director at Colorado State and Loyola Marymount who writes the Bylaw Blog, summarized well to the Los Angeles Times the belated attempts at reform underway to forestall the litigation piling up, blizzard-style, at the NCAA’s door.
“I’m sure if there was a proposal to get rid of (the pasta overdose rule), somebody would have an excellent reason where it would lead to the end of the world for their team,” Infante said. “That’s what makes it so difficult to slim down this rule book that’s been so built up over the years.”
An abrupt unbinding of the 432-page rule book, tediously assembled over decades to doggedly preserve the last place on the sports globe where amateurism is not only tolerated but exploited, will create chaos. Which apparently will be necessary.
As Infante said and Emmert also mentioned Friday, the NCAA regulates 350 schools, some of which have a $5 million annual budget for all athletics, while the University of Texas has a $175 million budget.
It is a failing management system because it cannot find ways to distribute revenues and rules that provide some semblance of fairness over such diverse needs and wants. The fact that it took five years to decriminalize cream cheese tells the world how resistant the NCAA is to real reform.
Reform, up to and including a declaration of professionalism for the big-revenue sports, should have happened years ago. But it took many athletes to be backed into a corner, and absurdities sufficient to fill a Salvador Dali exhibit, to convince many who don’t receive paychecks from NCAA-governed institutions that self-reform is not possible.
Merely culling the rulebook a week before a vote to unionize by the football players at Northwestern is laughable. Unfortunately for him and all of college sports, Emmert is paid to defend the indefensible, and he did it again Friday in the ESPN interview.
“The reality is that the model serves more than a half a million students every year very well,” Emmert said. “It produces $2.7 billion in scholarship support. Are there things we need to fix? You bet there are. But you don’t throw that baby out with the bathwater. We have to find ways to change and improve without ruining that successful model.
“It’s far too easy to look at this huge top-line revenue number and say ‘Everyone is making money,’ when the reality is that that top-line number supports a half a million kids.”
And the old Soviet Union produced toilet paper. But babushkas had to stand in a mile-long line to buy it.