MORGANTOWN — After spending about 40 minutes talking with Shane Lyons, West Virginia’s athletic director, about the situation in which the NCAA finds itself after the Supreme Court ruled against it in the lawsuit concerning compensation of student athletes brought against the association in the name of former Mountaineer running back Shawne Alston, a very old and not very good joke came to mind:
A cop stopped a guy for speeding.
“He said, “Do you know how fast you were going?”
“I was just trying to keep up with traffic,” the guy replied.
The cop said, “But there is no traffic.”
And the guy answered, “That’s how far behind I am.”
While this has nothing to do with college sports, it has everything to do with the situation as it has evolved considering society and its college sports. It has to do with the NCAA’s reaction to changing times and how far behind they had fallen in trying to keep up with a world that was leaving its business model back in the Knute Rockne era.
It has to do with the media that was moving maybe too fast in believing that the concurring opinion from Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the 9-0 decision warned that collegiate student-athletes would soon become paid employees, possibly bringing about the downfall of college sports.
“It’s important to say, even with the ruling not being in favor of the NCAA, that I don’t see the association going to a model of play for pay,” Lyons said.
Lyons is well connected enough to the situation to deserve the right to voice an opinion, even if it is a dissenting opinion to that of the court and Justice Kavanaugh, who flatly stated that “the NCAA is not above the law” and you “cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”
Lyons seems certain Kavanaugh’s words do not forecast the eventual outcome of a complete overhaul of the NCAA and its business model that will lead to disaster or total professionalism in college sports.
He should be well versed in the matter, considering that since arriving back at his alma mater to replace Oliver Luck in 2015 after having spent the four prior years as deputy director of athletics at Alabama, Lyons has been deeply involved with the NCAA.
The past couple of years he has been head of the Division I Football Oversight Committee and in another week takes over the even more important role of chairman of the Division I Council.
First off, Lyons notes that the lawsuit itself was quite narrow in its scope, involving only compensation to players in football and men’s and women’s basketball for expenses tied to their education, not an outright pay-for-play declaration.
“A lot of interpretation would have to be involved in saying what that actually means. Is it a kid needs a laptop, so you buy the laptop? They have an internship? OK, I’ll pay for that,” he said. “In reality, we are doing many of those things now, at least at West Virginia. If we can show that it’s tied to education, we have been paying for that.
“People are writing this is pay-for-play. I’m not an attorney, but there are still guidelines in the NCAA that put caps on education expenses. It’s not changing the model to pay-for-play,” Lyons said.
Lyons said some people believe this opens a path to what he called the “Lamborghini rule,” which would allow richer schools to offer up a luxury car to student-athletes because they say they need a car to get to class.
“The court said in its ruling that was not what they were saying,” Lyons said.
Lyons strongly maintains that members of the NCAA are not looking for student-athletes to become “employees” and that such a decision could ruin the entire college sports community that ranges far past just the two money-making sports of football and men’s basketball.
“After having the ability to dive into the Supreme Court ruling, there are things in there about educational expenses being given to the athlete as long as they are tied to education,” Lyons said, having no disagreement with this aspect of the ruling, stating that “it should have been done long ago.”
But he sees it as a giant step from a demand to institute a pay-for-play model.
The former Parkersburg High School basketball player notes that while WVU supports 18 intercollegiate sports, 16 of them lose money and that is the way it works throughout college athletics.
“You have to go back 50 years, maybe further. Sports were a part of the educational model set up years and years ago. As more and more money entered the business through the doors of football and basketball. That benefitted all the Olympic sports and that model just continued to grow,” Lyons said.
“The two sports that make money are football and basketball through TV contracts, ticket sales, contributions, etc. If you look at it, the model is not your typical business model. If you were using a typical business model, we would not have had all of these Olympic sport programs. For years, football and basketball paid the bills,” he said.
While it certainly can be argued that you have a bad business model when you run 18 sports and 16 of them live only through the money made from two of them, there certainly is a lot of benefit to the college experience to those who play those Olympic sports.
It has become a part of Americana, Lyons argues.
Asked what he sees as the future of college sports, Lyons admits it’s a hard read in view of changing times.
“It’s hard to venture a guess on that,” he said. “The fabric of college sports is so ingrained in the U.S. society. Our model is different than any other country. Other nations have club sports and they are completely separate from the educational structure. There are advantages in having it tied to education and there are disadvantages.”
He points out that the NCAA came about for the “health and safety of student-athletes,” being formed after players were dying from football injuries at an alarming rate around the turn of the 20th century.
“It has taken on a complete life of its own over the last 120 years,” he said.
The explosion of the popularity of college football and basketball in modern times has thrown the economics out of whack completely, leading to the situation now at hand.
“Because the model in two sports has grown into something bigger than the business model of higher education. The question is how can the two work together. I don’t have the answer to that. I wish I could sit here and say I had this solution but that’s what we have to work through,” Lyons said.
“How far can we go without turning it into professional sports or pay-for-play? Some surveys show that society is split on that. Some segments like college sports because it is, shall we say ‘amateur sports’, although that may not be completely correct. It’s somewhere between amateur and professional.
“For us to sustain in the future we are going to have to explore the area, as we have been doing, of more benefits — things like cost of attendance. We should have done that years ago but it’s only been in place since, I think, 2015. It should have come years before that.
“Those are the kind of adjustments we have to look at. We have to ask is the NCAA going to be a viable solution for us or is there going to have to be a different association or different model for college athletics for the future. I don’t have that answer right now.”
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