Author Topic: The Man Who Built the N.C.A.A.  (Read 1185 times)

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The Man Who Built the N.C.A.A.
« on: May 30, 2015, 02:56:22 am »
The Man Who Built the N.C.A.A.
MAY 29, 2015

Joe Nocera

In the course of working on a book about the N.C.A.A. these past few years, I’ve found myself grappling with the legacy of Walter Byers.

Byers, who died this week at the age of 93, was the first genuine full-time employee of the N.C.A.A., a role he assumed in 1951 when he was hired to be its executive director. Although the N.C.A.A. had existed since 1906, it had always been a toothless thing, a membership association that operated out of a small office in the Big Ten’s Chicago headquarters and was run by college officials who all had day jobs. It had neither the will nor the ability to police college sports; indeed, the impetus for Byers’s hiring was the collapse of a short-lived reform effort called “the Sanity Code,” which was the N.C.A.A.’s first serious attempt to establish uniform rules for college athletics.

Walter Byers, center, outlining a four-year probation imposed on Indiana University in 1960.Walter Byers, Ex-N.C.A.A. Leader Who Rued Corruption, Dies at 93MAY 27, 2015
Byers was 29, a former journalist and public relations man with no management experience. Yet he soon convinced the member schools to punish the University of Kentucky’s basketball team, which had been implicated in a point-shaving scandal, by boycotting it for a season. This was the beginning of the N.C.A.A.’s formidable enforcement powers. He then prodded the universities to give the N.C.A.A. sole authority to negotiate a college football television contract. This also became a major source of Byers’s power. And, of course, he famously coined the term “student-athlete” to ward off the threat that college athletes might be eligible for worker’s compensation if they got hurt.

By the time Byers stepped down in 1987, the N.C.A.A. was both powerful and profitable, with more than 1,000 member schools, 143 employees and an annual budget of more than $100 million, as Bruce Weber noted in his obituary in The Times. By most normal measures, Byers had a highly successful career.

Then again, the N.C.A.A.’s culture to this day — overly bureaucratic and rules-obsessed, and utterly lacking in empathy or compassion for the 18-year-old athletes who come under its purview — is one that Byers instilled. Convinced of the N.C.A.A.’s — and his — moral superiority, he rejected any suggestion that it played favorites, conducted vendettas, and meted out punishment for the pettiest of violations, though it plainly did. Confiding in no one, he ruled by fear, not consensus.

Byers also failed at the thing that he claimed to care most about. He wrote in his memoir that his goal was always to preserve “the amateur collegiate spirit I so much loved as a youth and admired as a young sports reporter.” The N.C.A.A. developed an absurdly thick rulebook on his watch meant to “keep college athletics more a student activity than a profession,” as he put it, none of which slowed down the growing commercialism of college sports. His basketball tournament, now known as March Madness, became a moneymaking juggernaut. And in the early 1980s, when the big football schools sued the N.C.A.A. to regain their television rights, he stubbornly refused to negotiate a compromise that might have prevented the situation we have today, in which football-driven television contracts are the holy grail of college athletics. Instead, in 1984, the Supreme Court ruled against the N.C.A.A., giving schools and conferences the right to cut their own television deals. Which they did.

By the time Byers retired, he had turned against his own creation, claiming that commercialism had won and the N.C.A.A. should face reality. In 1995, he published his memoir, entitled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.” Much of it consisted of his recounting Sisyphean battles to keep college sports “clean,” and high-stakes negotiations with the television networks.

But at points along the way, he also decried the “cartel” — his word — that he helped create. He used other words, too, including “hypocrisy,” which is what so many modern critics see when they look at the N.C.A.A. Byers laid out a full-blown reform agenda, including eliminating “oppressive N.C.A.A. laws,” treating athletes the same as every other student on campus, and allowing them to make money from endorsements. And he noted — with no apparent irony — how resistant the N.C.A.A. was to change.

When I first realized that the man who built the modern N.C.A.A. had many of the same complaints that critics have today, my jaw dropped. But I also couldn’t help noticing that he never accepted any blame for the onerous rules, or the egregious restrictions on athletes, or the N.C.A.A.’s resistance to change. Instead, he blamed “the new generation of coaches and staff” who “didn’t know and didn’t care to learn about old ideals.”

I suppose it’s a good thing that Byers eventually saw the harm his N.C.A.A. was doing to college athletes. But that insight came awfully late in the game. Had his change of heart come a decade earlier, when he might have been able to change the course of the organization he had built, and transform its culture, college sports would have been far better served.

Besides, actions speak louder than words.☐