How the NCAA Fumbled the Most Important Part of Its Story
By Dante Pannell
As the chilling laugh which concludes Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” comes crashing through the speakers at the University of Washington’s Alaska Airlines Arena, gymnast Katelyn Ohashi bounces into a split that catapults her back to her feet. With a twist of her head, she assuredly closes out a flawless routine: once again, she’d laid the groundwork for a score of all 10’s, and another viral social media moment.
At the time of her performance, Ohashi was a student-athlete in the UCLA athletics program. UCLA is part of the Pacific 12 conference in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates athletics at 1,268 colleges and universities. The NCAA severely restricts how student-athletes can earn money while retaining eligibility to compete — meaning Ohashi, who following her aforementioned routine went on every daytime talk show imaginable, became the face of her sport, and was the topic of conversation on ESPN for weeks — could not receive a single dollar of the revenue her performance generated for so many others.
The NCAA defines itself as “dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes,” a belief that aligns with its admirable origins: it began as an answer to injuries and deaths on early American football fields, and was formed to establish rules for schools who wanted to participate in interscholastic competition. Over 110 years, programs and conferences have been absorbed by the NCAA, transforming it into one of the most successful non-profits in the world, with direct revenue of over $1 billion. That number is a relative pittance compared to the money generated by its member schools through the sports programs the NCAA oversees. Each of these dollars are generated under the guise of “amateurism,” which excludes the student-athletes the organization claims to support from compensation.
Great stories follow a narrative arc known as the Hero’s Journey. This storytelling structure, also called the monomyth, was codified by Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. Campbell’s arc, while originally applied to myth and fiction, underpins effective brand narratives, as well. The monomyth structure has 17 stages, which take a hero residing in a broken world, and introduces them to a mentor who sets them off on a journey to mend the ills of the world using a magical gift. From Marvel and Star Wars films to the messaging of the world’s most valuable companies, the human mind is hard-wired to respond to this approach in storytelling.
An effective brand story positions customers as its hero. Superficially, the NCAA has this right: it has positioned itself as the mentor to hero student-athletes who would be lost without sage guidance to balance the demands of sport and scholarship. But, Ohashi, like tens of thousands of other college athletes, might understandably be skeptical of this positioning story. A compelling story is the first steps to building a brand, but if it doesn’t align with an organization’s actions, it undermines its hero with a bitter betrayal.
The NCAA has long rebutted assertions that it exploits labor for gain: since the student-athletes receive a “free” education, they are being adequately compensated as “amateur” athletes in the on-field product. Examining how the NCAA and its member schools deploy the massive amounts of money their programs generate, however, quickly undercuts this assertion, and the very core of the NCAA brand positioning. In reality, everyone in collegiate athletics seems to be quite well compensated — except the student-athlete.
While 84 percent of the NCAA’s revenue is generated through its March Madness basketball tournament, for member schools, football is overwhelmingly the largest revenue source: in 2017 alone, Ohio State University’s athletics program brought in over $185 million, $90 million of which came from football. A breakdown of how that money was spent says a lot about the NCAA’s priorities: of Ohio State’s $175 million in expenditures, $31 million was directed toward coaching salaries and compensation — $6 million went to head coach Urban Meyer alone — almost three times the $11 million that went to student-athlete scholarships.
Boosters of the NCAA might make all kinds of arguments about this disparity: the competitiveness of coaching at that level, the benefit athletes receive from the best coaching and facilities, and more. And if students receiving only six percent of the revenue their efforts generate were the only incongruity, it might be enough to shred the veneer of “well-being and lifelong success.” But, the NCAA’s efforts to the contrary don’t stop there.
For example, in the final days of 2010, the NCAA issued a judgement related to players in that same Ohio State program. The players, some of the largest names on the team, participated in a sale of their own memorabilia, and received free tattoos from a local parlor. As a result, five players were suspended for games during the upcoming season — including standout quarterback Terrell Pryor. This is not an isolated incident, at Ohio State and other programs. In November 2019, another Ohio State player, Chase Young, was suspended two games for taking a loan from a family friend — even after he took the proper steps to notify the NCAA.
These actions are taken in the name of preserving amateurism in college sports. Yet, this closely-held principle never appears anywhere in the NCAA’s own positioning. And, keeping players from benefitting from their own likeness certainly does not appear consistent with their lifelong success. These actions clearly illustrate where the priorities of the NCAA, and its member schools, lay.
While numbers don’t lie, stories can: the NCAA’s true heroes are not college athletes, but instead, they are the universities and alumni who profit off of their talents. This long-standing misalignment has been tolerated by boosters: players who cost a pittance keep programs full of the perks alumni love, and give universities funds they can spend elsewhere.
But newly proposed legislation could disrupt the NCAA and its story forever — voluntarily or by court order. Even if some people are willing to tolerate an inauthentic story, it catches up with brands eventually.
The state of California is the first outside party to directly challenge the disconnect between what the NCAA says and does (although sportswriters have been crowing about it for years). Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a bill in late September 2019 which would allow college athletes to hire agents to represent their interests — a major violation of what the NCAA considers amateurism. The crux of the bill, which could take effect in 2023, is the ridiculous double-standard the NCAA applies to student-athletes: any other student enrolled in a university (including on scholarship) can make money off of their names, likeness, or image, but the ones who serve as income producers for the university — athletes — cannot.
New York, North Carolina, Illinois, and Florida lawmakers have introduced their own versions of the “California Law” challenging the NCAA. The organization will need to address the disconnect in its story which denies college athletes the same rights that their fellow classmates exercise daily.
The NCAA tells — and has told for many years — a great story. It’s compelling, and ensures millions of tickets and dollars of donations each year. Donors feel good about their role supporting student athletes, and alumni, fans, and attendees can celebrate their participation in a virtuous tradition of opportunity. It should come as no surprise that neither institutions nor alumni are up in arms to save someone like a Chase Young: disbelief in the NCAA story would force them to reckon with their own lack of authenticity.
So, a story that says one thing and does another persists. Although the NCAA has begun to change its stance on student athletes profiting from their work on the field — and possibly off of it — the damage has been done. Like Ohashi, Pryor, and Young, countless careers have come and gone, with universities, coaches, alumni, and entire states capitalizing on student, while precious few ever go on to the professional careers that, theoretically, serve as the reward for a collegiate career.
Katlyn Ohashi officially retired earlier this year. She soared to incredible heights as a collegiate athlete. But after all of her success and inspiring work on the mat, she struggles to rectify why she — of all people — wasn’t able to profit off of her once-in-a-lifetime talent: “I had to go through this whole labor process and I wouldn’t have been able to promote it or profit from it and I was able to graduate anyway so I waited, but it’s frustrating.”
People flock to a brand story that connects with them — especially when it follows the time-tested monomyth. But that story is, above all else, about and for its hero. For decades, the NCAA has excited millions with a promise to benefit student-athletes, while consistently undercutting that narrative with its actions. Through either voluntary or judicial action, the NCAA will soon align itself with the story it tells: to the benefit of is heroes everywhere.