March is usually the best month for the NCAA. It's March Madness, after all. The NCAA Tournament, which is not only college sports' marquee national event but also one of the cornerstones of our sporting calendar. People spend the month talking about, watching, and betting* on college sports.
(*For amusement purposes only, of course).
But this March wasn't the best for the NCAA. There was the Rutgers fiasco. There were accusations of scandals both at Syracuse (my school) and Auburn. Mark Emmert, the NCAA's head, came under fire for his leadership and had a combative press conference the week of the Final Four. Then there was the Kevin Ware injury and the subsequent bone-headed decision by Adidas and Louisville to sell T-shirts with Ware's number (the shirts were pulled from the virtual shelves).
What's striking to me is how many media outlets, how many reporters and columnists, were taking the anti-NCAA standpoint. The Kevin Ware shirt was widely, and rightly, panned.
OK, so the NCAA is often low-hanging fruit. It's rule book is too convoluted, too arcane, too restrictive on players.
But it seems to me like there is a tide turning in sports media. I have no data to back this up, but it's just something I've observed lately. There is a critical edge to the commentary and the journalism that was missing in the past. If the first-generation of investigative sports journalists dealt primarily with unveiling traditional NCAA scandals (paying players, academic fraud, etc.), then the newer generation of sports journalism deals with critically examining the power structure itself. The work of Taylor Branch, Dan Wetzel*, Charles Pierce, Jason Whitlock, Barry Petchesky and the Deadspin guys, the Big Lead guys, and countless others, is exposing the core hypocrisy of big-time college sports.
(* My initial post forgot to include Wetzel, which was an unforgivable omission on my part. I apologize for that.)
Put it this way: The work of Charles Robinson at Yahoo and Pete Thamel at SI, among others, has traditionally been held up as the paragon of sports journalism. And at a pure technical level, their journalism is typically sensational.
But there's a fundamental question lurking: Is good journalism that tacitly endorses a corrupt status quo good?
Why has this change come? A couple of reasons come to mind. Maybe it's the amount of money in big-time sports. It's gotten insane the past few years, so the disparity between that money and the fact that players get no cut of that is starker. Maybe it's the Ed O'Bannon case, which is threatening to overturn the economic model of college sports.
Maybe, too, it's the increasing number of news outlets/blogs/commentary sites. Sites that aren't a part of what Ben Carrington calls the "white sports industrial complex." Sites that aren't dependent on NCAA contracts for revenue, for circulation numbers. Sites that open the marketplace of ideas to views, comments and ideas that don't typically fit into the sports pages.
Whatever the reason, it feels like things are changing in college sports. It feels like the NCAA is on thin ground. It feels like things are starting to shift. It feels like the entire complex that's been built around big-time college sports, with all its hypocrisies, faults and unfairnesses, the complex that allows everyone to profit off an Adidas Louisville shirt with No. 5 on it EXCEPT the player who wears No. 5 in the first place, the complex that the sports media has helped build and entrench over the past decades, is starting to crumble.