Our discussion began with commercialism, then it morphed into student-athletes rights before going back briefly to graduation rates by the time we parted ways.
As far as Isenberg’s take on commercialism, he says he has no problem with it.
The difficulties, he claimed, lie in balancing the commercial enterprise of athletics with the academic mission of the institution of higher education, as well as the concept of trying to force all student-athletes in all of the NCAA’s divisions and subdivisions into a one-size-fits-all model.
He said that no moral judgment should be made against the NCAA and its member institutions for taking a capitalistic approach, but that they should be more transparent about where the money goes and invest it directly into the welfare of the student-athletes who help create the product of college sports instead of using it to fund a Catch-22 arms race.
When I proposed the idea that the NCAA’s ultimate problem might be a failure to effectively define amateurism, Isenberg said that doing so would not fix the problem but instead be the trap into which it got its own tail caught.
“As far as the NCAA is concerned, commercialism is about taking college sports and packaging it as amateurism,” Isenberg said. Who says someone can’t teach the teacher, I thought, refusing to use the one about an old dog and new tricks at the tender age of 37.
On the Catch-22 note, however, Isenberg noted that the NCAA couldn’t too easily afford to stab a stick into the revolving door to stop the charade without endangering its nonprofit status and having Congress take a big wet bite out of it.
“True, true,” I assented, thinking about the masses of college coaches and athletic administrators who already work awfully long, hard hours for peanuts rather than the Caliparis, Donovans, etc., of the college sports world.
Isenberg further noted that while, as an NCAA critic, he might easily be perceived as a staunch opponent of the NCAA and college sports, but in fact, he said, the NCAA deserves a great deal of credit for its efforts.
As an institution that must carefully manage many diverse constituents, Isenberg said, the NCAA has done an incredibly successful job of this, despite the flaws in its system.
And, he added, the NCAA has been a wizard at building business and branding, even in the face of the commercialism vs. amateurism debate.
“Take a bottle of water, for instance,” he said.
“Twenty years ago, we were drinking water from a tap, and everyone was fine with that, but now, the beverage people tell us tap water is bad for us and to drink bottled water, so we do, and we pay the ridiculous $1.50 or more they ask for it, because it’s what we want!”
After a brief interlude for him to greet and introduce me to ESPN reporter Shelley Smith, we wrapped up our discussion with graduation rates.
“My big point on this issue is simply this: I’m not as concerned with graduation rates as I am with athletes getting a meaningful education,” Isenberg said.
Makes sense to me, I thought, as I reflected on the scores of student-athletes I’ve taught at institutions large, small, and in between, while wondering what most of them are doing today.
If nothing else, my discussion with Mr. Isenberg stoked my fire about and passion for intercollegiate athletics, which had already been fanned high by recent discussions with my best friend and colleague Dr. Colby Jubenville , director of the Center for Sport Policy and Research at Middle Tennessee State University.
After discussing some of the recently exposed NCAA woes that are further sensationalistically illuminated this time of year, he and I came to a conclusion, which was reinforced by my conversation with Marc Isenberg: If the NCAA can find a way to work effectively with its sponsors, it can find a way through this madness by creating vested partnerships with corporations that, by virtue of their brands, insist on integrity and socially responsible initiatives and programs.
Yes, I know, I know—the NCAA already has this program, and that program, and the other program.
And the term social responsibility is fast becoming one of the most overworked cliché buzzwords since awesome.
But think about it in a new way.
Outside of television, where does the NCAA get its money? From corporate sponsors.
Who better, then, to insist on helping the NCAA design, develop, and implement meaningful change brought about by true socially responsible initiatives that do more than provide chances for kids to shoot a basketball or read a book with a Ty Lawson or a Tyler Hansbrough, but that instead actually educate them?
In reviewing his material, Marc Isenberg seems to represent that new kind of thinking that Dr. Jubenville and I embrace and believe holds the key to a successful future for the NCAA.
Ben Goss is an assistant professor of management at Missouri State University. His specialty area is sport management, and he teaches in the Entertainment Management program in the College of Business Administration.
The opinions, intimations, conclusions and inferences contained within this interview are solely those of our independently associated correspondent and of the interviewee; they do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of College Athletics Clips.