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The NCAA's 'House of Cards'

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By ALYSHA TSUJI
College Contributor Network

Episode one -- namely the introductory dog-choking scene -- sets the tone of the "House of Cards" series. It paints Francis Underwood as ruthless -- he's a pitbull who has no patience for "useless pain."

The two seasons released thus far have followed Underwood as he works to build a political empire with methodical cunning, piece by piece. However, as the show's title suggests, his supremacy can only last so long.

Likewise, the NCAA is winding down a similar path. The non-profit organization is handling increasing volumes of money each year. According to the NCAA's consolidated financial statements ending in August 2013, its total revenues stacked up to nearly $913 million.

Through U.S. Supreme Court cases and inner-association shake-ups, the NCAA climbed to the top. The NCAA boasts that it's "dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life."

But how accurate is that statement?

In an essay on NCAA regulation history by Rodney K. Smith published in the Marquette Sports Law Review in 2000, one of the court cases mentioned is NCAA vs. Board of Regents. In the 1984 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA violated anti-trust laws. That outcome paved the way in allowing schools to cash-in on television deals.

Then, Smith writes, "Generally, developments during the past two decades have focused on governance and economic issues."

To me, that roughly translate to: "The past 20 years yielded no attention to education."

And, toward that end, he eerily predicts that, "If the NCAA is unable to maintain academic values in the face of economics and related pressures, the government may be less than a proverbial step away."

A la the political pitbull, Underwood, the NCAA maneuvered its way to the top. Yet, also in true Underwood fashion, problems ensue. Underwood kills off anyone who turns into a liability, whether it be pushing a person in front of a subway train, locking a person in a garage to feign suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning or ripping a person's reputation to shreds.

The NCAA doesn't deal with its problems in quite that sort of mafia-style manner but, from the way things have panned out lately, it feels as if the organization is crumbling to the point where it may resort to drastic measures.

This past March, the Division I Northwestern University football players fought for the right to unionize and be recognized as employees of the university. Although the decision has not been solidified, the movement marked an enormous stride in favor of the "pay the players" camp in the great NCAA debate of "to pay or not to pay 'student-athletes.'"

More recently, the O'Bannon vs. the NCAA case ruling that dropped in early August violently shook the NCAA as well. It involved Division I football and men's basketball, and the ruling again notched a push forward for those supporting the "pay the players" argument.

At first glance, a couple of swift appeals by the NCAA appears to be a plausible solution in helping the NCAA stop its slide down a greased slope. But at this point you have to ask yourself, "Do we even want to help? Is the NCAA's goal to truly better the lives of student-athletes or to exploit those student-athletes for cash?"

The same reaction comes to mind when watching Underwood destroy everything in his path. He's the anti-hero. Seeing him win is thrillingly satisfying. And yet seeing him lose generates a similar feeling.

This summer the NCAA passed a new autonomy structure that gives more power to the bigger schools while leaving the smaller schools in the dust -- no love for the little guys. It means that schools in the "Big 5" conferences can instill changes independent of the NCAA.

For example, in theory, if Alabama has the means to amp up scholarship offerings to draw more recruits, they have a right to do so. Meanwhile, a smaller school like Pepperdine University that can't afford to hike up scholarship offerings, would be at a ridiculously severe disadvantage.

In addition to that, per USA Today, in 2014, 35 college men's basketball coaches earned seven figure salaries; and, in 2013, 70 football coaches earned that much.

At face value, Underwood can prove to be charming with his drawl and sweet methods of convincing people to do things they otherwise wouldn't. On paper, the NCAA looks and sounds fantastic: a non-profit organization with a solid mission statement, a full compliance board and a thick handbook full of guidelines.

The difference is that the NCAA is falling fast while Underwood is still on his feet.

Something to note is that Underwood makes it a point to protect his power rather than his money, as he says, "Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries."

That's not to say the NCAA lacks power or that Underwood is struggling to pay his bills, simply that different priorities can elongate the lifespan of a powerful reign.

Nothing, however, can halt the inevitable downfall. The higher they go, the harder they fall.


Alysha Tsuji is a senior Journalism major at Pepperdine University. Her passion lies in sports media, namely when it comes to covering the NBA. Follow her on Twitter: @AlyshaTsuji
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