A sign of the (L.A.) Times: Jay Bilas may have some biases … but it’s all about doing what’s fair in NCAA Land
By Tom Hoffarth
Jay Bilas isn’t leading a self-endorsed 2020 presidential campaign to head up the NCAA’s hierarchy.
It won’t stop others to crusade on his behalf.
Going into 25 years as an ESPN college basketball analyst, Bilas says he doesn’t believe “there’s a snowball’s chance” of him soon replacing NCAA CEO Mark Emmert, entrenched since 2010 and a frequent Bilas social media foil.
But in light of spirited discussion of the California Senate Bill 206 “Fair Pay to Play Act” that governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last week, and Bilas’ opinions about it traversing the veins of many ESPN shows, it came around to “Pardon the Interruption” co-host Tony Kornheiser to put forth the idea that if changes at the top of college sports’ governing body need to happen, “a guy like Jay Bilas could become the head of the NCAA.”
No question mark necessary.
As Bilas ponders that idea in our latest Los Angeles Times media piece, we’ll use this space to flesh out some more about where the 55-year-old former Duke player stands on the SB206 legislation, as well as other things on his radar:
How do you process arguments for or against SB206?
A: Sometimes they say: These athletes don’t deserve anything because all the value comes from the school. Meaning: Where would they be without the school? Well, the truth is, from an economic standpoint, that’s absurd. You can apply that logic or lack thereof to coaching. The values of the school and enterprise of the NCAA competition, one might ask why should Coach K make $9 million a year. Of course, he should. That’s what the market dictates. If athletes are allowed the opportunity to take advantage of their worth in the marketplace, it wouldn’t be just Zion Williamson and Tua Tagovailoa who are paid. It would be everyone. The scholarship is the very least that the players are worth. You can’t tell me if Tua is the highest paid athlete at Alabama, they wouldn’t pay to protect him with an offensive line, with receivers and all that. Look to any pro sport, and that’s the case.
Absolutely, there is value in the schools. But you can make the same claim: Why should Kobe Bryant have made all that money when there was so much value in the Lakers, if there is so much value in the entity?
Last week you talked about the various ways that athletes — not just Williamson or Tagovaiola — could benefit from SB206. There are many opportunities in the media, for example — the Central Florida football player who was monetizing his image on YouTube for forced to quit, the UCLA gymnast whose routine this spring went viral. How are there examples that go beyond the obvious jerseys and endorsement narratives?
A: There’s no question about that. I put something out on Twitter an article by a Williams College golfer who wrote a book after taking off a summer and traveling around and playing golf in the lower 48 states. When the NCAA found out, they declared him ineligible, and he had to petition to get it back. What is more educational-based than writing a book? He. Wrote. A. Book. You’d think an education-based organization would celebrate him for that.
But it’s the slippery slope argument. So what if Tua puts out a coloring book and Alabama boosters pay a million dollars each for each book? C’mon, man. We have so many doomsday scenarios when the truth is, Nick Saban can do an insurance commercial and the world stays on its axis. It’s not a big deal. It’s just not.
I know the NCAA is worried its member institutions can’t bank every single penny that’s available out there. But it’s over. This (bill) is going to happen, if it’s now or 10 years, it’ll happen. You can’t make billions of dollars and shut out one segment of the business and think it will continue forever. The fact lawmakers from so many states and the federal government and the justice department are so interested in this is, the clock is ticking on the NCAA on this issue. I think the NCAA knows if they lose this name, imagine and likeness issue to the players, ultimately that will lead to the universities paying athletes because it’s just easier. So much easier. Like coaches.
I went to Duke, so use it as an example. It has an employment contract with Coach K. They can tell him: You can do this, that and the other, and we have the ability to say no to your endorsement opportunities.
I laughed when I heard intelligent people within the structure of the NCAA, athletic directors and presidents, who say: What if an athlete wants to do a commercial for a strip club? Or a marijuana use company?
Well, what if a coach wants to do it? What do you do? We always go to the doomsday scenario.
So what if a university did a deal with Hooters as their official restaurant, and the players didn’t like it, because it wasn’t in line with their values? Then they’d have to quit the team. The university makes the decision. The university can say, ‘We’re good with this or not,’ and ultimately it’s easier if they just pay them, set up a contract. It’s so much cleaner. The idea is that literally the rest of America — except a scholarship athlete in college — can take advantage of their worth in the marketplace, and it works just fine. The idea that it wouldn’t work for an athlete in college is really absurd, frankly.
What was your thought about California Gov. Newsom using the LeBron James HBO show as a place to sign the bill?
A: First, the bill is is the right thing to do and I agree, it doesn’t even go far enough. The best thing is to have a free-market system just like every other student who goes to school. So this California law is a positive step, but it’s not a full step toward a free-market solution.
But to me, I was surprised Newsom would sign SB206 in such a way as, ‘Hey NCAA, don’t screw with California. We’re doing this. You made your move, you’ve messed with us and you’re going to react to us.’
I would have thought he’d do it in his office with a media event there rather than on LeBron James’ show. That was very anti-NCAA. Even if it seems like it, I’m not anti-NCAA. I may differ with some policies the NCAA puts forth and the reason for them or justifications that may not be valid. I’m not saying the governor doesn’t care for the NCAA, but clearly, whatever the NCAA and the university presidents in California did to try to get Newsom not to sign it seems to have backfired. I do feel the way that was signed was a big middle finger to the NCAA.
It was especially important (UCLA gymnast) Katelyn Ohashi and (WNBA star and former Don Lugo High of Chino standout) Diana Turasi were in the room too because this goes way beyond the NFL and NBA talent. One of the things that almost offended me was the response NCAA – not just Mark Emmert but also some member institutions – who were saying this would hurt women’s sports. First, there’s no basis for that in all in fact. And there is no analog they can point to. So there’s silence on their part on the hiring of women and scandals on the mistreatment of women. And now we’ll make a statement that women will be hurt by this? I thought that was really low. And frankly very lame.
Why would you resist taking a position of power within the NCAA hierarchy?
A: I’ve always said I will do whatever I can to help. I have stood at the ready for years to take a phone call, sit on a committee, to make this as good as it can be because I believe in it. I believe in education, the game… all these things. And I believe in money.
I don’t have any problem how much money Chip Kelly makes, or Coach K or Nick Saban or Roy Williams or Bill Self. My only problem is I don’t think we should be pursuing this kind of money while at the same time telling the main revenue drivers – the players – you get enough. No one else in American society is told: You get enough.
We make choices all the time. Go back to the University of Chicago. It was once a football power. It had the first Heisman winner in Jay Berwanger in 1935. Eventually, it made a decision, a choice, that college football and big-time sports didn’t fit its value system, so they stopped it at the highest level. I’m pretty sure it could sell millions in merchandise and memorabilia if it was still a Division I school. But they decided not to, and that’s what choice looks like.
People often talk about choice — if players don’t like something, then go pro or don’t play. That’s a false choice. Choice is each competitor and each school, if they want to pay, whom they want to pay and how much. Just like they do everywhere else. Does a college want a Division I program, or to invest in a hospital? Do we pay our coach $3 million or $8 million? That’s a choice. It’s not a choice when all the schools get together and say: You only get a scholarship if you want to play and pursue an education at the same time. You have to abide by our cartel rules. Literally no one else in America has to do that. It’s not just wrong, but I believe it’s do a point where it’s immoral in a multi-billion business.
If the NCAA ever asked about hiring you, do you think you serve the public better by having a voice in the media rather than inside the NCAA structure?
A: I don’t know. But that’s a good question. If (an NCAA presidency) was a legitimate opportunity to serve and in a capacity that I could have positive impact on change, I would absolutely do it. But the truth is, there’s no way the presidents view this that way. They use word “antithetical.” In that, providing the athlete with more than a scholarship is antithetical to what college sports all about. But when the stipend rule came in five years ago, that’s exactly what they said about that. It’s akin to pay to play, the smaller schools can’t afford it, this is going to provide an unfair advantage for the big schools … The truth is all of that was nonsense. Everyone’s doing it now and it’s normal course of business and it’s absolutely fine.
All the talk around name, image and likeness rights should be viewed as it was about the stipend. It’s a bunch of doomsday talk so they can scare people into thinking we will lose this whole enterprise. In my humble experience, multi-billion industries don’t fold up because they have to pay their employees.
If you were in charge of the NCAA, would you be beholden to speaking for the university presidents rather than for the benefit of the students and athletes? Or is it a dynamic you think you could challenge and change?
A: I think I would be on the side of what I believe to be right. An example: I’m on the NCAA competition rules committee. We don’t have any authority to change rules, but to just make recommendations. On one hand, you have the idea of the tradition and history of the game. A lot of people look at it: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if the game always evolves, we need to keep up with a changing landscape. So I’ve always looked at it, not at the standpoint of does this help or hurt this conference or these institutions, it’s about what’s best for the game overall?
In the position of president, you’d say there are times when given the enterprise, this is what’s fair to the institution and to the players. This is what fair looks like. But you also say I believe in education first and foremost and no one could really challenge that. I went to college in four years and law school and all that. I believe in education. So they’re education-based solutions to many of the NCAA’s problems as well. Including the transfer issue.
One hand, you could say if we say players are students first who happen to be athletes and should be treated as students, the natural area you go is that no other student is told they can’t transfer. Students transfer when they want. But there is a competitive balance issue to that too. You don’t want players transferring mid season. You could have reasonable rules. There is a year-in residence people talk about. You could have a policy if a player wanted to transfer they could be eligible at the start of the next season if they had enough credits to transfer and were on track to graduate. Those are fair.
But now, I hear a story that a softball coach told me, about an All-American pitcher at Arizona State. She transfers after her first semester to Oklahoma. She leads them into the College World Series that same season. So we’re worried about football and basketball players transferring and becoming eligible next season? We don’t even apply our rules the same to each sport. Some could say that softball isn’t a big-money sport so who cares? I know who cares — players, coaches and fans care. Competitive balance is as important in softball as it is to football and basketball.
More stories written about Bilas over the years:
= The Atlantic in 2017: “The Case of Jay Bilas vs. the NCAA Will Now Be Heard: The outspoken lawyer-turned-ESPN analyst may be the moral conscience college basketball needs this season, as it grapples with its biggest scandal in decades”
= The Washington Post in 2017: “ESPN’s Jay Bilas: ‘The NCAA makes its own rules, and their rules are bad’ ”
= The New Republic in 2014: “The Most Righteous Man at ESPN”
= And why overlook this: Bilas in a Season 2 episode of “The White Shadow” (he’s No. 3):