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Revisiting the Illini’s bitter past with NCAA scandals: Part II, The Present and the Future

Changing narratives and a focus on the Olympic model provide hope for better outcomes in the future.

NCAA Announces Corrective and Punitive Measures for Penn State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Part I of our two-part series explored the 1960’s Slush Fund Scandal, the 1980’s football scandal under Mike White, and how the NCAA’s iron fist rule over college athletics led to swift punishment during the Deon Thomas scandal.

Part II explores the changing narrative around pay-for-play scandals and the hope that the Olympic model can clean up the dark underbelly of college athletics.

The Narrative Changed

The tone of scandals has certainly changed since the Deon Thomas days. No longer does the media in unison decry scandals that involve paying players. The narrative on amateurism began to change with the Ed O’Bannon’s EA Sports case and the Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

O’Bannon changed the conversation when he dared to say that players deserved a piece of the NCAA’s revenue pie in the form of payments for a player’s likeness. The publicity from the O’Bannon trial prompted South Park to take aim at the issues of amateurism and pay-for-play. Then, the Penn State scandal showed the NCAA’s inability to police actual heinous crimes.

Suddenly, pay-for-play scandals were no longer seen from the lens of the NCAA — the virtuous cop trying to defend the ideals of noble institutions — but were instead seen from the lens of players who were being exploited.

The cat was out the bag: The NCAA is not virtuous and the players ability to earn money is restricted by outdated ideals.

Two schools of thought butting heads in the Media.

There are still those who believe in the ideals of amateurism. They still treat players who take money as criminals trying to cheat a noble system and the coaches as their accomplices.

On the other hand, there are those who see the bigger picture and view amateurism as a legal fiction created to keep labor costs down.

The former is Kodak, the latter is Instagram. These two schools of thought will continue to battle in the media. So, where should the conversation head next?

With the moral compass shifting, focus on the complexities that can be negotiated away.

The crowd that feels players are being exploited will continue to grow and push for reform. In order to successfully do so, they must fine tune their arguments and they must zero-in on what they can actually accomplish given the constraints of Title IX.

The traditionalist crowd that wants the system to remain intact needs to understand the undercurrent shifts in morality. Not only has the public shifted away from pay-for-play being immoral or unethical, but some are beginning to flip morality on its head by framing the traditionalists as immoral.

Then, those few who want to preserve the status quo will hide behind the argument that established institutions usually hide behind once they no longer have morality on their side: Complexity.

Change is too complicated

The traditionalist crowd is already hiding behind complexity. Some complexity, such as Title IX, is codified and truly hard to get around. Some complexity, such as issues related to licensing, just exists in a business sense and can be dealt with through collaboration and negotiation. This is a key distinction and one that always gets lost in the argument.

Arguments for paying players need to be fine tuned

Those who advocate for paying players need to focus on what they can accomplish given the complexity of Title IX. Paying football players a salary means paying all other athletes a salary and that salary will likely have to be equal for everyone. Guess what? If you do this, a black market will continue to persist because the door is left open for under the table payments above the players salaries. So, how do you eliminate the black market?

Stick with the Olympic model not on making players salaried employees

Bill Connelly has been one of the staunchest media voices for bringing Olympic model to the NCAA:

NCAA and school administrators aren’t full of it when they talk about the logistical issues with paying athletes. We like to yell, “PAY FOR PLAY,” and hope someone figures it out, but the details are messy.

With the Olympic model, we don’t have to worry about paying a third-string defensive tackle or a redshirting tennis player the same as a Heisman candidate, because we aren’t the ones paying. We don’t have to involve as many tax forms, and we can lighten the NCAA’s workload somewhat.

Let the players sign whatever deals they can get on their own. If boosters want to pay the players, let the boosters pay them. If boosters want to give players cars, let them do so. If an athletic apparel dealer wants to sign a high school or college player to an endorsement deal, let the apparel company sign them. In other words, deregulate the limitations on player’s commercial opportunities.

Universities don’t have to pay the players. They can simply allow the players to pursue whatever opportunities they can pursue in the free market.

Athletes in college sports who are considered “non-revenue” generating could also have vast commercial opportunities under the Olympic model. The benefits of such a model would go beyond football and basketball.

Will this be complicated? Yes, absolutely.

A school with a Nike deal is going to have to figure out how to account for a player with an Under Armour deal. A coach is going to have to deal with the friction in the locker room when star players are driving around in expensive cars while less heralded players are barely getting by on their athletic scholarships. Gambling is another complication that will have to be monitored. However, these are all complications that can be massaged away.

Paying players a salary, on the other hand, is a complication that, in order to eliminate a black market of under the table payments, requires modifications to Title IX or complete elimination of Title IX. This would necessitate extensive litigation and judicial intervention. That’s a political powder keg from which the NCAA, and its universities, must steer clear.

Unfortunately for Illinois, the Big Ten was a principal architect of the ideal of amateurism. This ideal works to benefit established powers at the expense of userpers like SMU, Ole Miss, or even Illinois. So, when Illinois turned itself in for creating a slush fund, the conference popped the userping Illini Football program in the mouth. When Illinois Football picked itself back up under Mike White, the NCAA was there to throw them back on the floor, much to the delight of the established elites in the sport.

Then, the Deon Thomas scandal occurred at a time when schools had little to no leverage against the NCAA. The media and the public sentiment favored swift and decisive action against Illinois.

Today, such a scandal would be mostly viewed from the perspective of Deon Thomas, a high school phenom trying to monetize his valuable skills (or the players in the slush fund scandal trying to take care of ailing family members) versus a system that punishes those that try to monetize their valuable skill sets.

In the future, the conversation must focus on how players like Deon Thomas can monetize their skill set in the Olympic model and not about how the University of Illinois needs to pay these players a salary.