New NCAA president, same old backward thinking

Charlie Baker sounds like he's straying from his anti-regulation roots

On March 31, 2015, Charlie Baker, just months on the job as governor of Massachusetts, signed “Executive Order No. 562.” It required state agencies to “promptly undertake a review of each and every regulation” under its purview. It additionally banned any new regulations from being established for one year.

Baker, a Republican in a historically Democratic state, campaigned on eliminating government overreach because, as the order noted, regulations are often “confusing, unnecessary, inconsistent and redundant” and leave individuals and companies at a “competitive disadvantage.”

He was, after all, the former executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based “free-market think tank.”

Well, after eight years as one of America’s most popular politicians (his approval rating often surpassed 70%), Baker has a new job as NCAA president.

Based on his comments Thursday on CBS about his immediate priorities on the job, however, his old deregulating sensibilities have escaped him. It should be of concern that the new NCAA regime is going to be the same as the old NCAA regime and continue to spin its wheels as modern reality engulfs it.

On CBS, Baker focused on the lack of transparency in name, image and likeness deals — which, contrary to how he framed it, should not be considered a bad thing, at least for student-athletes.

Instead, he doubled down on the NCAA’s long-standing philosophy that student-athletes are not adults (despite virtually all being at least 18) but incapable rubes who need “protection” via rules that, oh, just happen to serve the interests of the schools.

“[The NCAA would like to] create what I would call some consumer protections for families and student-athletes around name, image and likeness …” Baker said.

“I would love to create some transparency and accountability around that, so that families actually know what they’re getting into, and I would really like to see some sort of uniform standard contract, so that when somebody signs it, they know they’re signing the same kind of agreement everybody else is signing,” Baker continued.

Baker is being naive here — hopefully on purpose.

We know he is new on the job and no doubt being inundated with comments from change-adverse coaches and athletic directors who for decades have known little other than strict order over athletes thanks to an aggressive rulebook that has regulation — and corresponding punishment — for everything.

Has he heard about the bagels and cream cheese?

Coaches approved because in recruiting they knew that, officially at least, no school could offer more than room, board and tuition. And once a player signed a one-sided “letter of intent,” there could be no monetary reason to transfer. This was control of the talent.

Athletic directors favored the system because all revenue — television, advertising, sponsorships and donations — came through them. This was control of the money.

However, federal courts and state legislatures have now forced the NCAA to allow its athletes to make endorsement deals directly with businesses and individuals, aka NIL. Since the NCAA won't recognize student-athletes as employees, they have no right to interfere with them earning money as they see fit.

This has been a shock to the system for a business model that experienced minimal disruption across the decades. That's business, though. Things change; either adapt or perish.

Charlie Baker, right, is in his first year as president of the NCAA after serving as governor of Massachusetts for eight years. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Charlie Baker, right, is in his first year as president of the NCAA after serving as governor of Massachusetts for eight years. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What Baker is proposing is a claw back of control by claiming the NCAA is looking out for those poor players who otherwise might get duped by a bad actor who might not fulfill some NIL promise or contract.

The most glaring example is football recruit Jaden Rashada, who thought a so-called “NIL collective” was going to pay him as much as $13 million to play for the University of Florida. Yet the initial payment never arrived. The collective was a fraud. Rashada is now enrolled and eligible at Arizona State.

It was a bad deal, and bad deals will no doubt continue to happen. But that doesn’t mean players need the NCAA (i.e. government) to step in and place undue regulations on them. There is professional representation available as protection, civil courts to seek remedy and, of course, the basic principle of caveat emptor. Besides, in a global sense, having Rashada study and play at one school rather than another is not an issue, let alone the disaster it is being exploited as.

This is life — at least if you respect student-athletes as adults, not objects for a nanny state to exploit.

The NCAA, though, wants to use that traditional thinking to acquire knowledge over every deal while also controlling the terms of all deals via its own contract language.

This is obtrusive and invasive and limits the free-market potential of student-athletes. The ability to leverage the possibility of multiple offers of unknown value is fundamental to capitalism — be it negotiating for a salary or selling a used car. It’s how coaches get contract extensions and raises nearly every year. There is also a fundamental right to privacy.

That’s why this is more than a backdoor power play cloaked in well-meaning protectionism. This is the NCAA still not recognizing that its athletes will either do just fine on their own or learn some lessons so they do fine on their own the next time.

Mostly, this is the sentiment that led the NCAA to get so far astray from the courts and public opinion. This is the echo chamber of coaches and administrators seeing change only as a problem and additional rules as the only solution.

Surely Charlie Baker, based on his quite successful run in Massachusetts, recognizes that the pursuit of unnecessary regulations would unfairly impact market competitiveness.

And surely Charlie Baker, the bipartisan dealmaker, knows that these kinds of proposals stand little chance of success in Washington, where the probability that Congress does the NCAA's bidding is low.

That means surely Charlie Baker, pragmatic, get-it-done, anti-regulation, free-market disciple will, upon predicted legislative failure, have a real plan to begin changing the basic doctrine of how student-athletes are viewed and then move the enterprise forward before it is too late.

College fans can only hope.

If the NCAA hired the new guy to think and act just like the old guy, rather than find a modern, reasonable and athlete-included path to the future, then the NCAA might be cooked already.