The NCAA is poised to once again damage the brand. Will it matter?

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has a well-deserved reputation for tarnishing its own brand.  Again and again and again.

Joe Nocera, business columnist for the New York Times, has spent the last two years or so chronicling the greed, hypocrisy, and cluelessness of the grand poobahs running the organization which lords over  Division I, II, and III college athletics—all for the purported good of the “student-athlete”.  The NCAA has developed an arcane series of rules all aimed at protecting the virtue of the amateur athlete and fighting to keep the money which corrupts professional sports away from these impressionable young people.  Of course, it’s no accident that money is directed to the elders who know better within the NCAA and its member schools.

The purists of the NCAA would be a whole lot easier to take if the organization wasn’t also completely committed to the commercialization of every aspect of college sports.  It is impossible to escape the wild success of college basketball and college football, where everyone can get rich—expect the “student-athletes” who have to hope to escape injury and cash-in with a fat professional contract in order to get their payday.

But Nocera and others have been quick to point out the uglier aspects of this successful marketing effort, the “student-athletes” who run afoul of the NCAA monolith and end up with targets on their backs, some for the most innocent infractions.  (Here’s a really sickening example of that phenomena.)  Then there are those who come under fire for daring to try to get a piece of the action they see going on all around them.

n2The most recent example of a student-athlete not patiently waiting to get theirs, and one which threatens to be a transformative moment for the NCAA, is the scandal surrounding Johnny Football.  For the uninitiated, Johnny Football is Johnny Manziel, an energetic quarterback from Texas A&M, a player who caught the nation’s attention last year by his great play on the field and ended up becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, the award recognizing the nation’s top college football player.

Johnny’s had what could best be described as a tough off-season, dogged by stories about his alleged partying, drinking and failure to live up to commitments.  (Sounds like a 20-year old being a 20-year old, doesn’t it?)

But ESPN kicked it up a notch recently when they broke a story about Johnny taking part in several signing sessions with brokers, signing his signature some 4,400 times to create pieces of memorabilia that could be sold to his adoring fans.  (There has since been a follow-up story about two more signing sessions that have been uncovered.)  Making money from his signature or his image is verboten for young Johnny, not so much for the NCAA itself, which was selling his jerseys online until ESPN analyst and former Duke hoop star Jay Bilas busted their chops on it.

Under the NCAA rules, Johnny could be facing a suspension, perhaps for the whole season.  Yes, the NCAA is on the verge of whacking a guy who is college football’s top star, its most identifiable figure, and arguably its most exciting player.  All for bylaw 12.5.2.1 which says a player shall not be eligible for participation in college sports if he or she:

  • Accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind, or
  • Receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual’s use of such product or service.

But it gets better and now I have to go a little Lewis Black here, because in the up-is-down Wonderland that is the NCAA, you can get nailed not only for selling your image or autograph.  OH, NO.  You can get taken to the woodshed for NOT DOING ENOUGH TO STOP SOMEONE ELSE FROM SELLING YOUR IMAGE.

Johnny-ManzielThat would be Catch-22.  I mean, NCAA bylaw 12.5.2.2, which states that if a student-athlete’s name appears on commercial items, even without said student-athlete’s knowledge or permission, they must “take steps to stop such an activity to retain his or her eligibility.”

Isn’t that just priceless?  It’s just another example of the sheer lunacy of the NCAA and the traveshamockery of a system which seeks to bar student-athletes from making money off their sporting efforts while the people in charge are…well,…making money off their sporting efforts.

The best part of the Johnny Manziel story is that one of the autograph signing sessions took place at the NCAA’s signature event, the Discover Bowl BCS Championship Game in Florida last January.  He was breaking the rules right on the NCAA’s doorstep.  And I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine that with all these brokers/dealers in town, Johnny was the only NCAA charge engaging in this behavior.  It’s where all the action is.

Any way you cut it, this story is a nightmare for the already sullied NCAA brand.  It highlights everything that is inherently wrong with big time college sports.  One minute, Johnny Football is the hero of college football and a player likely to keep bringing eyeballs to the sport.  The next, he’s facing the prospect of sitting on the bench for a year for signing his name to stuff…several thousand times.  If you act against him, you are damaging your product.  Dez_bryantIf you don’t act against him, it may be even worse.  Why?  Because you’ve acted against others for much less.  Just ask Dez Bryant, now a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys.  He got hit with a 10-game suspension back in his Oklahoma State college playing days just for lying about a lunch he had with Deion Sanders.  The lunch didn’t break any NCAA rules, but when Dez panicked in the face of an NCAA interrogation and didn’t come clean about the sitdown, he had to pay the price.

Nobody looks good in this deal, but the NCAA looks like the Rick Moranis version of Darth Vader from “Spaceballs”—a comically inept villain.  Not exactly the kind of image a serious brand wants to project.

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