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And Another Thing

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NCAA: The unraveling begins

This is how it comes apart, with measured words spoken softly in a court of law. The roar of collapsing monoliths may come later, but for now, this will do: Jim Delany on the stand, inadvertently revealing what the NCAA would be were it not what it is.

They put Delany on the griddle last week in Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA, and he spun fantasies devoutly to be wished. Said once college basketball ends, "we should put a lock on the gym." Said athletes should spend their summers doing something besides serving the corporate interests of the universities that employ them -- like, oh, maybe be students for once, the way they were intended to be all along.

Everything he said was absolutely right. And everything he said will absolutely never happen again unless the NCAA does what it's accusing the plaintiffs in this case of trying to do, which is blow the whole deal to matchsticks.

That's the only way this all gets back to the wish-dreams of Delany, or the fevered delusions of NCAA chief Mark Emmert, who swore under oath that what he presides over is as amateur as tiddlywinks on a playground. Delany pounding the drums for summers off, study abroad, freshman ineligibility and multi-year scholarships only underlined in bold how far the NCAA has gotten from its alleged ideal, and how impossible it is to achieve under the current model.

The skinny is the NCAA began deserting its own principles the moment it first turned its student-athletes into human billboards by allowing apparel companies to slap logos on them. They paid for the privilege, of course, and other businesses paid for other privileges, and pretty soon the NCAA was nothing but an umbrella organization protecting not the welfare of its student-athletes but a multibillion-dollar corporate brand.

Little wonder that student-athletes in high-dollar programs have now come to see themselves as the workforce for that brand, with the same right to organize and protect itself any workforce should have. Little wonder O'Bannon and other NCAA athletes -- some former, some current -- have taken the organization to court over the NCAA's claim it has the right, in perpetuity, to use its workforce's images without consent or compensation.

Little wonder, too, that the NCAA has gone into cringe mode in recent months, even offering to take the pruning shears to its rulebook. But even in this it's trapped by its own construct; none of its offers to reform address the issue of commercial exploitation of its workforce, because that's a money deal, and money deals will always stay off the table unless the courts compel someone to put them there.

Delany was as right as a cold beer on a hot day last week, but how do you let, say, college football players study abroad in the summers when college football has become such a huge engine of commerce? How does a Nick Saban justify his overblown salary if you pull the plug on the ginormous corporate entity that is Alabama football?

And what moneyed forces would bring what pressures to bear if, for the sake of your once-upon-a-time ideal, you did try to rein in that corporate brand from which so many have gotten so rich?

That well-appointed horse long since fled its well-appointed barn, and it's not coming back. Not unless you dynamite the barn and start over again -- looking to your own small-market schools and conferences as a model, because there the preferred ideal still exists.

O'Bannon winning his suit might be the first incremental step in that direction. And in that regard, Jim Delany might wind up saving this village by helping to destroy it.

Put a lock on the gym?

Shoot. Put a lock on the whole thing.

Ben Smith's blog.

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