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Is the Outrageous Exploitation of College Athletes Finally Coming to an End?

A growing chorus of doubters is beginning to see through the NCAA's insistence that its athletes are amateurs.

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A year before, Calipari had suggested that breaking away from the NCAA would allow the biggest schools to institute a stipend system the way they see fit, without it being derailed by the smaller schools or the NCAA. It would also, he said, result in far more money for the schools.

"All that television, all that revenue goes back to the schools," Calipari said. "You probably have $10 million that would go directly to the schools, to their academics and not have anything to do with athletics. You'd be able to give that living expense to all your athletes.”

School presidents are loath to discuss the idea of breaking away from the NCAA, though several have indicated that the largest football programs could soon split into their own division. But that doesn’t mean high-level administrators aren’t talking having quiet conversations about leaving the NCAA behind, especially given the amount of money at stake.

“That’s absolutely a feasible option,” Bilas said. “There are things being talked about now that have never been talked about before. The big schools want to operate the way they see fit. If they can do that inside the NCAA structure, I think that’s preferable. But of course they’re thinking about it. They did it in football. We’re talking billions of dollars here. The amount of money that’s at stake, of course they’re considering it.”

Such a break would not be unprecedented. In 1979, the College Football Association, a coalition of the biggest NCAA football programs, attempted to negotiate a national television contract for its members with NBC. The NCAA, involved in its own television negotiations, put its foot down, saying it alone had the authority to negotiate television contracts for members, which it restricted to no more than one televised game per year. The University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia sued the NCAA, claiming it had violated federal antitrust law, and the Supreme Court agreed. The ruling allowed the schools and their conferences to negotiate their own television rights deals and effectively split the largest schools from the NCAA for football purposes. (Even today, the NCAA does not regulate the championship and postseason for the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s top division. It is the only sport for which that is true.)

Without control over football or a cut of the revenues generated by television, bowls or championships, the NCAA depends almost solely on the end of season men’s basketball tournament for revenue. And does the tournament ever generate revenue. In 2010, the NCAA reached an 14-year agreement, worth $10.8 billion, with CBS and Turner Sports to televise, for the first time, every one of the tournament’s games. If the largest schools, which, with the help of the Bowl Championship Series, just crafted a football playoff, figured out a way to manage an event similar to the NCAA Tournament, a full split from the NCAA would become even more lucrative – and even more probable. “It’d make (schools) more money because it all goes straight to them,” Bilas said. “TV would flock to that.”

But even if the biggest conferences and schools abandoned the NCAA, what would stop them from perpetuating the status quo that avoids paying the athletes on which it would depend? After all, much of the support for paying players from coaches, Calipari included, is in the form of the stipend, and while that is an improvement over the current situation, it still leaves the players voiceless in the process. The claims that exist now -- that players are amateurs or that such a system would be unsustainable -- would still exist, even if the money was greater and the NCAA restrictions were no longer present. Wouldn't universities, awash in even more cash, want to hold onto it just the same?

When Bilas was a senior on Duke University's basketball team, a former player-turned-activist approached him and his teammates about boycotting the 1986 Final Four. The players, under the proposed protest, would suit up and take the court like normal, but when the game was to begin, they would refuse to take the court, a show of symbolic unity against the NCAA.

“My senior year, he came to me, he wanted us to boycott the Final Four,” Bilas said. “I said sure, but can’t we do it next year? I’m playing in it this year."

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