Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA

Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA

by Joe Nocera, Ben Strauss

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101619919
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 325,139
File size: 9 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Joe Nocera is a columnist for the New York Times. His previous books include All the Devils Are Here (with Bethany McLean), Good Guys and Bad Guys, and A Piece of the Action. During his long career in journalism he has won three Gerald Loeb Awards and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He lives in New York City.

Ben Strauss is a contributing writer for The New York Times, where he has written extensively about the changing face of college sports. Previously, he worked on Capitol Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Turncoat

It's easy enough to mark the moment when the NCAA began its rise to power: it was 1951, when an ambitious twenty-nine-year-old former sportswriter named Walter Byers became its first executive director. Though founded in 1906, the NCAA had long been a toothless association comprised of fewer than four hundred universities with athletic programs. Within a few years after Byers's arrival, however, the NCAA was striking fear into the hearts of college athletic officials, coaches, university presidents, and athletes alike. The essential rules governing amateurism were written on his watch. He built and nurtured the enforcement staff that investigated schools accused of breaking the rules. He invented the term "student-athlete," which he coined to evade efforts by several states to classify athletes as employees, and thus allow them to collect workers' compensation if they were injured. He negotiated television contracts, cut licensing deals, and helped elevate the NCAA's college basketball tournament into the commercial spectacle we now know as March Madness, where fans are not allowed to bring a drink to their seats that is not from a tournament sponsor, and where even the ladders that the players climb to cut down the nets at the Final Four are made by an official NCAA sponsor. He crushed the AAU, which had held power over amateur athletics before he took over the NCAA, brushed aside congressional calls for reform, and fought anyone who stood in his way. Though universities often resented the NCAA and Byers, they felt they had no choice but to join: by the time he retired, the NCAA had over a thousand member schools. Largely forgotten today, Byers was a force of nature in his prime: secretive, despotic, stubborn, and ruthless. Although he left the NCAA nearly three decades ago-he died in May 2015, at the age of ninety-three-his imprint was so strong that the NCAA's culture today is not very different from the one he imposed on it all those many years ago.

But while the NCAA didn't change in the intervening years, Byers did. He eventually turned against his creation, becoming one of its fiercest critics. Having fought all manner of opponents while he ran the NCAA, he joined them after he left, calling for the kinds of radical reforms that would not gain traction for another two decades.

The original purpose of the NCAA was to devise rules that would make football less risky. At the turn of the last century, football was a new game, and an exceedingly dangerous one; during the 1905 season, 18 athletes died, while nearly 160 others were seriously injured. Alarmed, President Theodore Roosevelt called upon the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton-football powers in those early days-to fix the problem. The newly formed NCAA wound up eliminating some of the most hazardous plays-out went the flying wedge-while legalizing the forward pass. ÒI must say that football has been greatly improved this year,Ó said Harvard president Charles William Eliot as the 1906 season came to an end. ÒIt has less injuries and is much more openly played.Ó

By the 1940s, football was by far the most popular college sport, a position it has never yielded-and a fact that drives the decision making at most university athletic departments to this day. In addition to the Ivy League schools, Notre Dame was nationally known for its football team, as were the Big Ten schools like Michigan and Ohio State. Then, as now, the athletes were supposed to be matriculating students who played solely for the glory of their school. And then, as now, there was plenty of cheating, with under-the-table payments, loosened academic standards, no-show jobs, and the like.

Byers, who grew up in Kansas City, had been a good high school football player, but when he went out for the team as a freshman at Rice University, the coach told him that, at five foot eight, he was too small to play in college. He transferred to the University of Iowa, where he worked on the student paper, only to drop out a few courses short of graduation to join the army after Pearl Harbor. Discharged because he was cross-eyed, he went to work in New York for the news agency that was then called United Press. In 1947, wanting to return to the Midwest, he took a job in Chicago with the Big Ten, as an assistant to its commissioner, Kenneth "Tug" Wilson.

In addition to his day job, Wilson was the secretary of the NCAA, which operated out of a room at the Big Ten's Chicago headquarters. Unhappy about the rampant cheating, Wilson proposed that the NCAA establish uniform national rules that all universities would have to abide by. "We must set up a policy whereby a boy will choose a school for its educational value rather than the school choosing a boy for his athletic ability," he said. In 1948, at the NCAA's annual convention, he helped push through something called the Purity Code (the name was later changed to the Sanity Code), which banned off-campus recruiting, prohibited "subsidies and inducement" to athletes, and insisted that athletes meet a school's "normal academic requirements" to be admitted. It even barred athletic scholarships, which became a source of contention with other NCAA schools, especially in the South, which felt they had to award scholarships to catch up with the high-profile teams in the East and Midwest. Though it still had no full-time employees, the NCAA was supposed to enforce the new code.

The Sanity Code didn't last long. By 1950, seven schools had admitted to violating the rules-mainly by giving athletic scholarships-and essentially dared the NCAA to toss them out, which was its only recourse. (The NCAA finally approved athletic scholarships in 1956.) At its convention that year, the schools that made up the NCAA failed to gain the two-thirds vote necessary to expel the "Seven Sinners." It was in the aftermath of that failure that Wilson turned to Byers and put him in charge of the NCAA, with an initial salary of $11,000.

Byers immediately moved the NCAA headquarters to Kansas City, which not only got him closer to home, but also created some necessary distance between the NCAA and the Big Ten, and hired a secretary. In the summer of 1952, he added an assistant, Wayne Duke, who would eventually become Big Ten commissioner himself. "It was a pretty humble beginning," Duke told the journalist Keith Dunnavant, the author of The Fifty-Year Seduction, a book about the symbiotic relationship between college football and television. "But there was a feeling that we were getting in on the ground floor of something big."

Byers burned with ambition for his new organization. "He wanted to build something meaningful," says Chuck Neinas, an early hire who worked for the NCAA for a decade. "Walter was an entrepreneur," says Wally Renfro, who spent forty years at the NCAA, beginning in 1972. "He built the NCAA largely through the force of his personal will, his charisma, and his genius." Jack McCallum, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer, once wrote that Byers "made a kingdom out of what once was a dot on the American sports scene."

Like Byers, the NCAA was secretive, despotic, stubborn, and ruthless. It also quickly became bureaucratic and rules-driven, lacking both flexibility and empathy-two qualities Byers also did not possess-in applying its myriad rules. Byers mistrusted the press, and so did the NCAA. He was a classic control freak who played power politics with the best of them, usually maneuvering behind the scenes. (He rarely spoke at NCAA conventions, for instance.) NCAA rules were "bylaws" that were first proposed as "legislation," making them sound like actual laws, which of course they weren't. His managerial style was often likened to that of J. Edgar Hoover; like Hoover, Byers didn't allow coffee breaks and he insisted that the desks of NCAA staff members be spotless. (He was also obsessed with how the Mafia worked; one of his ex-wives once said that he read a copy of The Godfather so many times that he had to get a second one.) He had NCAA staffers who sat next to windows report to him about who came to work late. ("Discipline is necessary," he later said. "That is why I ran a tight ship.") He used to tape phone calls with conference commissioners and others. He had no real friends to speak of-just "acquaintances and colleagues," says Neinas, who often had drinks with him after work.

Byers was also completely sincere about the importance of amateurism as the sine qua non of college athletics. "I passionately believed NCAA rules could preserve the amateur collegiate spirit I so much loved as a youth and admired as a young sports reporter," he wrote in his memoir. He abhorred what he used to call "the power coaches"-the ones, like Bobby Knight, the basketball coach at the University of Indiana, or Joe Paterno, Penn State's legendary football coach-who dominated their campuses and could run roughshod over the university president. He viewed himself as single-handedly restraining the forces of commercialism, and claimed that as much as he loved college sports, if he were forced to choose between athletics and academics, he would choose the latter. He believed that his enforcement staff, which was so distrusted by most member schools, was on the side of the angels, rooting out college sports' bad apples. Yet at the same time, his push to make the NCAA powerful-and college sports right along with it-had the practical effect of enabling the power coaches, of shoveling ever more money into athletics and turning it, year by year, into less of an avocation and more of a business. The contradictions that are now so glaring in college sports could also be seen in Walter Byers's life and career.

The NCAAÕs power, as Byers first constructed it and then fortified it, stood on two pillars. The first was enforcement. The second was television.

Having watched the collapse of the Sanity Code, Byers realized that he had to show that he could punish schools short of kicking them out of the NCAA. Less than a month after he took the job as NCAA executive director, he got his first opportunity when the New York District Attorney's Office picked up two recently graduated Kentucky basketball players, Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, on suspicion of point shaving during their college days. After New York's investigation came to a close six months later-there was no jail time for the players, though they were banned from professional basketball-Byers and Bernie H. Moore, the commissioner of Kentucky's conference, the Southeastern Conference, agreed that all the other SEC basketball teams should cancel their games with Kentucky for the 1952-53 season. Byers then went a step further. He insisted that every school in the NCAA boycott Kentucky for that season. When Kentucky decided not to fight the boycott, Byers had what he needed: proof that he could impose a punishment that would stick.

Within a decade, the NCAA was handing out all gradations of punishments. A school accused of recruiting violations might be forbidden from playing in a televised game for a year or two, or prevented from playing in the postseason. Schools were regularly put on "probation." Athletes who took money from boosters could lose their eligibility-and their prospective careers. In severe cases, coaches could lose their jobs because their programs had violated the rules. Enforcement gave the NCAA immense power over universities, athletic departments, coaches, and athletes-and it wasn't shy about using that power.

With its enforcement powers, the NCAA under Byers ruled primarily by fear. Maybe things might have been different if the enforcement staff-and the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which made the final rulings based on the enforcement staff's findings-had respected rights, shown compassion when circumstances warranted, and created an ethos that all the participants felt was fair. But the enforcement process simply wasn't set up that way. Lacking subpoena power, NCAA investigators gathered information any way they could, no matter how dubious or conflicted the source, or underhanded the method. There was no pretense that there were "rules of evidence" as that phrase is commonly understood. And it was merciless in enforcing rules even when they caused an unjust outcome.

Investigators would often act on tips-yet the tipster was never revealed, so that a school had no way to defend itself or question the informant's motive. Members of the NCAA enforcement staff didn't tape-record their interviews, and often didn't take notes until hours or even days later. Athletes or coaches who were charged with violations were allowed to have a lawyer at some, but not all, interviews. Nor could they mount any kind of defense that involved cross-examining witnesses, since that was not part of the process. The moment a player came under suspicion, he was assumed to be guilty, and the school had to render him immediately ineligible or risk forfeiting games it had played using an "ineligible" player. Indeed, because the player was not even a member of the NCAA-only universities were-he essentially had no standing to defend himself against any charges that were brought against him. With his career on the line, the player would be questioned without knowing why, and would be told that he couldn't discuss the interrogation without further jeopardizing his eligibility.

After the enforcement staff finished its work, the case went before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which met a handful of times each year and was made up of law professors and other academics at NCAA member schools. Then, and only then, would the school or the player be given a chance to defend themselves-not that it was ever a fair fight. The enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions were invariably on friendly terms-dinner and drinks were not unusual when the committee was in town-and the enforcement staff had ex parte communications with the committee that were never afforded school officials. Because of the way the NCAA put together investigations-with hearsay evidence, interview notes that were often inaccurate, and unnamed sources-universities were invariably forced into a he-said, she-said conflict with the enforcement staff. The Committee on Infractions almost never voted against the enforcement staff.

As the NCAA rulebook grew ever larger, eventually ballooning to over four hundred pages, many people in college sports came to believe that the NCAA could make a case against any school, at any time, if it so chose: it was simply impossible to always stay on the right side of so many rules. This was especially true in the two big-money sports, football and men's basketball, where the players often came from disadvantaged backgrounds and lacked the kind of pocket money that other students on campus took for granted. Allowing an athlete a free phone call from the coach's office was impermissible. Giving him money for a ticket back home to attend his grandmother's funeral was impermissible. Allowing an athlete free food in between mealtimes was an impermissible benefit. (This rule was finally changed in 2014, after Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut guard who was the star of that year's March Madness tournament, complained on national television that he often went to bed hungry.) In 1978, during a series of congressional hearings about the NCAA, one of its former investigators, Brent Clark, said, "Give me six weeks and I can put any school in the country on probation."

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