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Supreme Court exposes the old college lie

The high court’s 9-0 ruling Monday against the NCAA opens the door for student-athletes to be compensated. 

The days of exploiting Northwestern and Illinois football players might be coming to a close.
The days of exploiting Northwestern and Illinois football players might be coming to a close.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

God bless the law.

Never thought I, a would-be renegade, could ever say that.

But I have. And I mean it.

It took the Supreme Court to finally tell the NCAA that it is a phony, bullying, patronizing, exploitative monolith built on the laughably indefensible concept of ‘‘amateurism.’’

That longtime fraudulence can be framed thusly: Displaying rare talent, working really hard, entertaining millions, lining the pockets of vast numbers of pseudo-helpers, profiteers and leeches is a noble thing for gifted young men and women to do . . . for free.

In a landmark decision Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that college athletes can be compensated for their work far beyond the room, board and educational scholarships that big-time universities offer them.

Yes, there are some parameters to that decision because at least for now the court says the extra benefits should be education-related somehow. But you can almost guarantee that soon that limit will be erased, too.

No matter. The athletes are, at last, basically free to make a buck.

Will college fans who are happy with the status quo like that?

Probably not.

Will the decision create havoc and complications in many quarters?

Absolutely.

Does it mean the loss of a certain kind of collegiate innocence, no matter how contrived?

Yes, it does.

But guess what?

You can only prop up a tilting Rube Goldberg contraption for so long, no matter how much you love the propeller that spins at the end.

Indeed, it was the NCAA itself that professionalized everything about big-time, entertainment-driven, revenue-producing sport in the first place. Everything, that is, except for the workers, who went unpaid.

Nobody ever said the NCAA had to put its games on TV, charge a fortune for tickets, build massive stadiums and sports complexes, pay coaches many millions of dollars. That was done because the NCAA wanted to. Boosters and fans and gamblers liked it, too.

But nobody ever asked the athletes what they thought. They were young, disorganized, gone soon.

Expand from 10 football games a year to as many as 15 or 16 now? Done.

Miss many classes in a major that is irrelevant and useless so you can prep for the Big Dance (rather than the major you’d want if this really were about education)? Done.

Wear a shoe on command and watch the endorsement wealth go to, say, Urban Meyer or John Calipari or some coach who wears wing tips? Done.

The compounding hypocrisy was so overwhelming that by its sheer audacity it tended to blind us to reality. It has been said before that folks will believe a big lie sooner than a little one. I mean, if anyone can name any profession in this country wherein the skilled laborers get nothing for compensation but meals, beds and books, I’d like to hear of it.

The court said essentially that athletes can profit off their likeness and test the waters on many other ventures. After all, whom would fans prefer to see at a meet-and-greet — a gum-cracking, fast-talking college coach or the star quarterback or point guard? Or even the entire usually anonymous — but stunningly huge — offensive line?

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the court’s opinion, ripping the NCAA’s contempt for antitrust law by limiting benefits to athletes to only the stuff it wants to give out. He was measured and precise in explaining the change, leaving a lot out there for review.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh was less restrained, caustically explaining how wrong the NCAA’s ‘‘amateurism’’ philosophy is and opening the door for even more athlete freedom in the future.

‘‘All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that ‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks,’’ Kavanaugh wrote. ‘‘Hospitals cannot agree to cap nurses’ income in order to create a ‘purer’ form of helping the sick.’’

He concluded, ‘‘Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor.’’

For more than a century, the NCAA has worked for its own good. In its eyes, somehow, 19- to 23-year-old athletes are too young, too naive, too easily manipulated, too stupid to share in the revenue they produce. Gotta hand it to the NCAA. It was a great con while it lasted.

It’s always a shame when Congress or the courts have to make institutions do what they should’ve done all along. It’s also bad when those decisions become politicized.

But this mixed-bag Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) against the NCAA’s exploitation.

On the field of play, that’s what’s called a butt-whippin’.