By: Guest Contributor Alicia Jessop of RulingSports.com (Twitter: @RulingSports)
There’s a four word saying which over the course of time, has come to define the pride and character of the state of Texas and its citizens:
Don’t mess with Texas. 
Today, Texans (Longhorns fans, at least) can further tout their state’s prowess as a national stronghold, as the University of Texas Longhorns become the first collegiate team to launch their own cable network—The Longhorn Network.
For Texans, Longhorns fans and college sports fans alike, the birth of The Longhorn Network brings great possibilities. The first perk born of The Longhorn Network is that Longhorns fans now have the ability to tune into a channel with 24-7 coverage of their favorite team. Non-Longhorns enthusiasts willing to put pride for their own team aside can find hope in the existence of the network, as a the creation of a network devoted entirely to the college team of their preference is largely contingent upon the success of The Longhorn Network. Thus, the launch of The Longhorn Network and its continued success is seemingly something every college sports fan can rally around for the time being.
However, today’s launch of The Longhorn Network signals another roadblock placed in the NCAA’s path of enforcing its bylaws.
On August 16, 2011, college sports fans were arguably shaken to their core when a story broke detailing a felon’s allegations that he provided improper benefits to 72 University of Miami student-athletes.
In response to the allegations made by Nevin Shapiro that he provided over $1 million in improper benefits to Miami student-athletes over the course of eight years, many pundits have called for the NCAA to inflict the “death penalty” on the University of Miami.
The death penalty is the “most serious” penalty that can be inflicted by the NCAA. Most recently, it was inflicted against the Southern Methodist University football team and resulted in that team being unable to participate in its own football seasons.
However, the NCAA’s most recent infliction of the death penalty came long before the birth of the lucrative network and NCAA/university/collegiate sports team/conference television agreement marriage.
Although the $300 million, twenty year contract between ESPN and the University of Texas, which spurred the creation of first-ever television network devoted entirely to one university’s teams, the Texas Longhorn Network contract by no means is the only television contract clouding the NCAA’s ability to enforce its bylaws.
The NCAA itself is a party to numerous hefty television contracts, the most notable being its current $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting “. . . to present the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. . .”
NCAA member conferences are likewise partners to lucrative television contracts. The Big 10 Network debuted in 2010. The Pac-12 Conference will launch seven television channels in 2012. The deal between the Pac-12, along with ESPN and Fox leading to the creation of the Pac-12 Network reportedly calls for the Pac-12 to be paid $3 billion over twelve years. The ACC, the conference to which the University of Miami is a member, signed a twelve year, $1.86 billion television contract with ESPN in 2010.
The existence of these contracts is not news to anyone. There is large money to be made in college athletics. In the twenty-first century, the bulk of that money comes from media agreements.
However, the problem presented in imposing the death penalty in the twenty-first century is caused by this widespread entanglement between television networks and college sporting programs and their governing bodies.
Arguably, the cancellation of any one team’s season by way of imposition of the death penalty in this age of the massive media contract would result in a fury of lawsuits. Networks would likely argue that the absence of a team from any sports season’s schedule would prevent them from receiving the benefit of the bargain they negotiated for. Thus, the imposition of the death penalty against a team in the twenty-first century not only kills their season, but kills television contracts.
This notion is not lost on NCAA President Mark Emmert.
Recently, when discussing the fact that he “. . . isn’t opposed to [the NCAA Committee on Infractions] using [the Death Peantly],” Emmert quipped, “. . . you have to recognize that, today, inflicting that penalty on any one school has a lot of collateral damage to other members of the conference, around media contract rights and a variety of things. So you wouldn’t enter into it casually.”
In an age when the majority of its Division I programs or their governing bodies are parties to some sort of media contract, and on the day when the first network devoted entirely to one university’s athletics program launches, is it time for the NCAA to review the effects that media contracts have on its ability to enforce its own bylaws? Given that over the course of the last week, news of the largest scandal to allegedly rock a school’s athletic program broke and the NCAA’s own president noted that television contracts may prevent the NCAA from issuing its strongest sanction against said program, should the NCAA adopt new enforcement bylaws which better mirror the face of NCAA media contracts in the twenty-first century?
The NCAA exists to promote its “core purpose” “. . . to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” Given the broad expanse of television contracts in the twenty-first century NCAA model, how does the NCAA limit these contracts’ effect on its ability to enforce its rules and promote its core purpose?
Enact legislation limiting the monetary amount that member institutions can accept for television contracts.
Many of you likely gasped upon reading this proposition.
In a meager economy where most athletics departments struggle just to make ends meet, the idea of the NCAA telling schools, conferences and even itself how much money they can make from television deals seems nearly blasphemous.
However, this proposition is not unfounded. The NCAA is not a corporation. Thus, it does not exist to fulfill a duty of obtaining the greatest amount of profit for the benefit of its shareholders. Rather, it exists to promote its core purpose. Do the existence of billion dollar media contracts which seemingly prevent the NCAA from enforcing its bylaws in certain situations allow the NCAA to promote its core purpose?
Additionally, this proposition may be presentable, because the NCAA is built largely upon the amateur status of its student-athletes. If the NCAA can mandate that its student-athletes do not receive payment for their participation in NCAA sports (other than scholarships), can it also mandate that its member institutions and their governing bodies do not enter into large media contracts which hampers the ability of the NCAA to enforce its bylaws?
Because of the stronghold that media contracts have on every inch of the NCAA, it is unlikely that this is a popular remedy for the NCAA tot pursue. Add into the mix the likelihood that antitrust, tortuous interference and other legal action would likely arise in response to such a measure by the NCAA, and this proposition seems nearly dead on arrival.
Because Option 1 requires a perfect marriage of economics and lawyers, it is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon.
Therefore, the NCAA must evaluate its own enforcement mechanisms and present enforcement measures which address the reality of the deep roots that media contracts have dug into the twenty-first century world of the NCAA.
If media contracts prevent the NCAA from inflicting the death penalty against the most egregious violators of its bylaws, the NCAA must act swiftly to adopt enforcement measures which match the intensity of the death penalty, but do not lead to the breach of such contracts. However, the adoption of new enforcement measures must be instituted in a way which promotes the NCAA’s “core purpose” and ensure that the education of the student-athlete remains “paramount.”
Which solution the NCAA adopts to address the lingering issue of the effects of television contracts on its enforcement mechanisms is to be seen. However, two things are certain:
1. With the changing and widening landscape of television contracts involving NCAA programs, the NCAA must act promptly to adopt a solution which addresses the threat that such contracts pose to its ability to enforce its bylaws.
2. For the time being, in adopting a resolution, the NCAA must hear the refrain likely to be sung by many:
Don’t mess with Texas.
You can follow Guest Contributor Alicia Jessop on Twitter (@RulingSports) and visit her site at RulingSports.com.