By all accounts, Walter Byers eventually came to a more realistic understanding of college sport’s hypocrisy than he espoused during his 36 years as NCAA’s original executive director, when Byers himself promoted the pretense of the “student-athlete.”
Byers, who died Tuesday at 93, published a memoir in 1995—seven years after his retirement from the NCAA—decrying the exploitation of college athletes. At that point, he bemoaned what he called the organization’s arrogant, autocratic and self-righteous attitudes and lobbied for an athletes’ bill of rights. “Whereas the NCAA defends its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields,” he wrote then, “they actually are a device to divert the money elsewhere.”
But he was singing a different tune most of his time in office as NCAA chief, from 1951 to 1988, when he was widely considered the most powerful man in what was branded (with his encouragement) non-professional sports.
In 1974, when Byers granted me a rare interview at what was then the burgeoning new NCAA headquarters in the Kansas City suburb of Mission, Kan., he argued that television money was not wagging the dog; that football was not consuming other sports in college athletic departments; that big-time college football and basketball players were students first and “not hired gladiators;” that Title IX’s mandate to offer equal opportunity for female athletes would be the “possible doom of intercollegiate athletics.”
To re-read Byers’ stated convictions from that session is depressingly like listening to the NCAA’s current state of denial. Byers insisted that imbalances between high-profile and low-profile college powers, and between high-profile and low-profile sports, were not cause for concern. And his justifications for accepting “compromises,” as he put it, easily could be cited as proof that things already were out of control, four decades ago, in terms of the athletic-academic equilibrium.
In 1974, the NCAA was getting $32 million from ABC television for the rights to televise a college football game-of-the-week—with superpowers such as Notre Dame or Ohio State having to be technically limited to two appearances a season (though there were early- and late-season exceptions), which Byers somehow considered a check on inequality.
Now, and still running with that golden TV ball, the NCAA is in the midst of a seven-year ESPN contract for $12.3 billion just for the three-bowl championship playoff. With no end to the big money in sight.
Byers, furthermore, was a primary architect in marketing the NCAA basketball tournament—March Madness—a franchise that has evolved into economic insanity, with a current 14-year television, Internet and wireless rights deal that will bring in $10.8 billion. That, even as NCAA officials continue to insist theirs is an amateur operation populated solely by “student-athletes.”
It is only in the face of major legal challenges that the NCAA recently voted to give the five most powerful conferences an ability to offer some financial aid to athletes. And that decision, in effect, merely will assure that the rich get richer.
In the meantime, in between time, consider some of Byers’ 1974 defenses of the system:
“The big dollar is available,” he said then, “so the emphasis of college athletics is accepted by the students and the public in general. How can you argue it?”
“You might as well whistle in a wind tunnel,” he said, as try to turn back the clock to college sports as an extracurricular student activity, minus recruiting and large, fabulously paid coaching staffs. “It won’t fly. I suppose it’s the quest for excellence that makes that impossible. You beat a guy down the road and get the feeling he wasn’t so tough to handle, so you go looking for better competition.”
And with competition, fans—and, especially television, with its lucrative payouts—will get what they want. “Yes,” Byers said then. “It’s a compromise, and maybe all compromises are bad, although I don’t believe that. You have to have something that will sell. But, remember, we could do more things if we were interested only in the ratings….”
He was asked: Why not acknowledge the reality that the NFL was using NCAA schools as de facto farm teams and declare big-time college football professional?
“I don’t think a university could justify that,” he said. “I guess that’s a compromise, too. It’s a fact that those playing for NCAA colleges have to be students at their schools. They aren’t hired gladiators. Nor, I must admit, are all of them pure oceanography students, to use [an] example, who just want to play football as part of the college experience. It’s a compromise between pure amateurism and having the highest degree of competition.”
Late in his reign as the first NCAA executive director, Byers began to reverse field, to worry that higher education likely could not “stand the strain of big-time intercollegiate athletics and maintain its integrity,” as he told Sports Illustrated, and even proposed a form of compensation for athletes.
But his change of heart—the realization that too many college players indeed were hired gladiators; that TV riches were perverting the enterprise; that the “quest for excellence” was turning the highest levels of college football and men’s basketball into something of a swamp—somehow hasn’t been passed on to the modern-day NCAA.
He might as well have been whistling in a wind tunnel.