BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The National Collegiate Athletic Association learned an expensive civics lesson this week. A federal jury in Kansas City decided that you can't create a level playing field if it means bulldozing the law.
An ill-considered attempt to control costs by creating "restricted earnings" coaching positions has left the NCAA liable for a $67 million antitrust judgment, plus legal fees. An appeal is possible, but probably doomed.
Higher education has seldom looked so stupid. Price-fixing is not a new procedure, but rarely are the fixers so dumb as to do their plotting in public. When the baseball owners colluded in an effort to thwart free agency, they at least had the common sense to do their dirty work behind closed doors. They got caught because their scheme was too greedy, their execution too clumsy and their conspiracy all too clear.
The NCAA got caught because its members are still naive enough to believe all their problems have legislative solutions. At its 1991 convention in San Antonio, in an effort to reduce the recruiting advantages of big-time schools and the expenses of all member institutions, the NCAA reduced the size of Division I basketball coaching staffs and mandated maximum salaries of $12,000 for some assistant coaches during the academic year (plus a $4,000 limit on summer income). Ultimately, the class action suit included 1,900 plaintiffs.
"The legislation was designed to create opportunities for new coaches and not to hurt anybody," NCAA attorney Elsa Cole said following Monday's verdict. "The NCAA's position said if individuals were damaged from the restricted-earnings legislation, they should be fairly compensated."
Too often, though, what the NCAA considers "fair compensation" is what society sees as exploitation. The idea behind the "restricted earnings" coach -- at least as it has been described by NCAA lawyers -- was of an entry-level position akin to that of a graduate student in an academic department: long hours, low pay, priceless experience. This is a fair enough trade if it is bargained in good faith. But when terms of employment are imposed unilaterally, and adopted by every Division I school, it amounts to coercion, restraint of trade and stinks like a dead skunk in a fertilizer factory.
It is illegal, immoral and increasingly insane.
Yet the NCAA continues to foster the fallacy that it is operating a charity rather than a cartel, even as CBS is spending an average of $215 million annually for the right to broadcast its basketball tournament.
The NCAA's feeble efforts to reward athletes for their part in a billion-dollar business is to permit them to hold part-time jobs when they're not playing. Its efforts to make competition more equitable among member institutions invariably involve taking advantage of the individuals who do most of the work.
Among those who testified against the NCAA was Pete Herrmann, formerly the head coach at the Naval Academy, and now an assistant at Western Kentucky. Between those two jobs, Herrmann was compelled to accept a "restricted earnings" position at Kansas State. Finances forced Herrmann to live apart from his wife so that she might continue to hold a job.
This is the sort of thing that happens when legislation is drawn with too broad a brush, and veteran coaches find themselves being paid as if they were flunkies. Small wonder the jury was so generous. "Very few Americans believe that college basketball and football are really amateur sports anymore," said Indiana University professor Murray Sperber, author of College Sports Inc. "The jury basically said, "No, it's a professional organization, and the market should rule.' "
This is an argument the NCAA will be hard-pressed to win, and can ill afford to continue. The case of the "restricted earnings" coach sets a legal precedent that could also apply to college athletes. That is one can of worms the NCAA desperately wants to keep closed.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivanenquirer.com.