[Un]Frozen: The NCAA’s Amateurism Rules Bow Only to Disney

The NCAA is coming down from its high horse on enforcement of amateurism rules, at least for Disney. On Friday, USA Today columnist Nancy Armour reported that the NCAA will allow Arike Ogunbowale (the Notre Dame guard who drilled back-to-back buzzer beaters in the National Semifinals and Finals to lead the Irish to this year’s National Championship) to compete on this season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars AND retain all prize money that comes with it. Bravo, NCAA–you’re breaking your own rules for all the right reasons. Except–a closer look reveals ulterior motives.

First stop: the rules. NCAA Bylaw 12.4 governs employment of student-athletes. In particular, Bylaw 12.4.1 states: “compensation may not include any remuneration for value or utility that the student-athlete may have for the employer because of the publicity, reputation, fame or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletics ability.” Before March, only women’s college hoops fans would have known Ogunbowale’s name. Two buzzer-beaters later, she has entered the national spotlight and her place on DWTS is a direct result of her athletics skill. Looks like a violation thus far.

Next stop: historical precedent. Ogunbowale’s waiver isn’t unprecedented. In 1996, Northwestern running back Darnell Autry sued the NCAA to waive legislation that prohibited him from acting in an Italian movie filmed in Italy during the summer of 1996. Initially, the NCAA blocked Autry’s attempt as a violation of its amateurism rules. However, Autry, a theater major, demonstrated that his role in the movie was in no way tied to his notoriety as an American collegiate football player and he would not receive any compensation. Apparently, the NCAA discovered that Italians aren’t huge college football fans, and granted Autry a “non-precedential” waiver.

Taking rules and precedent together reveals that the NCAA has always had the ability to grant these waivers and allow such compensation opportunities for all of its student-athletes, but it has chosen not to. The organization has the tools to fix itself, but instead has chosen to vigilantly police amateurism, even as amateurism has turned into a myth at the highest levels of college football and basketball, all while simultaneously reporting over one billion dollars in revenue in 2017. Which brings us to the important point–the NCAA doesn’t deserve to be praised for doing something practical that is entirely within its power and should have been done for countless student-athletes prior to Ogunbowale.

While some commentators may see this waiver as a step in the right direction, I can only view it as a PR ploy that seeks to appease a broadcast partner and capitalize on a good story when the organization is surrounded by bad PR. Ogunbowale, the star of the final weekend of the Women’s National Championships, brought a ton of attention to the women’s tournament, which was broadcast on ESPN (part of Disney). Nobody’s fool, Disney clearly saw the press the young point guard generated based on her performance, and offered her a spot on one of its most popular shows, DWTS. As broadcast contracts make up $817M of the NCAA’s $1B 2017 revenues, the NCAA essentially waived its amateurism rules to keep Disney happy.

And, it’s looking for its own form of positive PR in the process. Ogunbowale is the perfect poster child for the NCAA. She is committed to earning a degree. She loves her university and her teammates. And, she plans to come back for her senior year in South Bend.

Ogunbowale is everything that is right about the NCAA’s amateurism model. But, just like Sister Jean, the NCAA doesn’t deserve the good PR Arike Ogunbowale will give it.

It comes as no surprise the NCAA is being lenient on amateurism for Ogunbowale just days after the U.S. Attorneys’ Office for the Southern District of New York filed additional charges against former Adidas shoe executive Jim Gatto. Gatto allegedly arranged cash payments of $90,000 to the family of a Kansas recruit, $100,000 to a Louisville recruit and $40,000 to a NC State recruit to secure the commitments of these recruits at Adidas-sponsored schools.

There is a chance the NCAA is genuinely considering changing its amateurism standards and Ogunbowale is the first step. On the other hand, the ESPN broadcast contract and the current vulnerability of at least NCAA men’s hoops leads one to believe this has nothing to do with evolution, but rather, re-entrenchment. The NCAA defended itself throughout the month of March when its model came under the heaviest scrutiny to date. It is naive to think that the organization has had an immediate change of heart. It is far more likely that this a PR ploy to appease a broadcast partner by an organization that has recently been outed for what it truly is, an ineffective, corrupt governing body.

Change is coming for the NCAA, but it will not be on its own terms. For now, however, the only entity the NCAA bows to is Disney, for better or for worse.

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