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What the Myck Kabongo Case Says about the NCAA

Texas basketball player Myck Kabongo broke rules that no college student should be subjected to.


Let's lay out the facts as we understand them, based on the information that has been reported. Myck Kabongo apparently traveled to Cleveland and did a workout with a professional trainer, and someone else may have paid for it. Myck Kabongo also may have discussed his professional prospects with an agent. These things are against the rules.

When approached by NCAA investigators, Myck Kabongo apparently didn't tell the truth. For this combination of crimes, the NCAA has suspended Myck Kabongo for the entire basketball season. This punishment is probably consistent with previous actions and rulings by the NCAA.

[Note: This suspension has been reduced to 23 games.]


Student-athletes live with restrictions that other students do not. A regular student would have been allowed to fly to Cleveland for an interview, or for training, at someone else's expense. The basic argument often used to justify NCAA rules in these cases is that student-athletes should be restricted more than other students, because many student-athletes are receiving tuition benefits. They should happily take this in exchange for ceding other rights and privileges that ordinary students routinely use. Such an argument is nonsense. A large number of students receive tuition benefits, but do not play college athletics. For example, many graduate students do not pay a single dime in tuition. They receive full tuition, health benefits, and a modest stipend in exchange for teaching and doing research. They receive these benefits without giving up their ability to explore and understand future employment possibilities. They are allowed to accept free trips to interview. They are allowed to accept a free dinner. No one would even contemplate restricting this.

College athletes provide a service to their school in exchange for a scholarship, much in the same way that a research assistant does. A basketball player and a grad student both create revenue for the institution. Myck Kabongo puts butts in the seats, while his counterpart in the physics department performs the work that brings research dollars into the university. Both Myck Kabongo and the physicist are receiving training from the university that will improve their future job prospects. Why should Kabongo be subjected to rules that limit his ability to explore his future professional life, while the physicist is not? Why does this have to be a part of the bargain for athletes?

Clearly grad students get a better deal than student-athletes.


NCAA rules have always put the players' interests last, particularly when it comes to life after college. Just as one example, several years ago the NCAA pushed up the date by which players had to declare for the NBA draft. This was done at the request of a group of coaches, and it made it even more difficult for players to make an honest assessment of their pro-prospects. And it was already difficult, given the regulatory apparatus that forbids many interactions between student-athletes and professional agents -- you know, the guys who can actually guide a player through this process.

Restricting interactions with agents does what, exactly? It preserves the amateur status of student-athletes. The NCAA rules value this over all else. Taylor Branch's famous Atlantic piece touched on this:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the "student-athlete." The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the "student-athlete" lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its "fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players."

"We crafted the term student-athlete," Walter Byers himself wrote, "and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations." The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a "work-related" accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was "not in the football business."

The NCAA carefully guards the amateurism of student-athletes. Thus, agents are out. It is easy to maintain public support for this position, as common portraits of agents paint a dark picture of their morals and motives. It makes it easy for the NCAA to preserve its regulatory apparatus. The NCAA is just protecting poor kids from slimy and manipulative agents, in the same way that NCAA rules apparently protect kids from slimy and manipulative AAU coaches. Everyone is dirty except the folks in Indianapolis; it is all so very convenient.


So how are we supposed to see this? How are we supposed to feel? For me, the only feeling is anger.

I don't care if Myck Kabongo's punishment is consistent with prior NCAA rulings. I care that the NCAA has put rules in place that clearly hurt student-athletes. I care that NCAA rules have been cleverly constructed to prevent a select number of students from preparing for their future careers in a way that no other student would tolerate. I care that these rules have been cynically designed to further the financial interests of college athletics at the expense of the financial interests of a handful of students, and this all may just be a clever way of avoiding workers compensation claims.

The NCAA Mission is, "to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes." It is good to know what that actually looks like.