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The tainted legacy of NCAA president Walter Byers

FILE - In this March 22, 1961, file photo, Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA, sits at his desk in Kansas City, Mo. Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA who spent 36 years leading and shaping the organization, has died. He was 93. (AP Photo/File)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to work at a craft, one of power, influence and even moral declaration, then after many years announce what you did — what you birthed, nurtured or both — was crap.

Welcome to the world of Walter Byers.

The man who virtually created the modern NCAA died Tuesday at 93, leaving behind a puzzling legacy of great capitalistic and organizational success, but also one of ethically flawed manipulation and exploitation of young athletes.

The crazy thing is, he knew this.

As the NCAA’s first executive director, starting in 1951 as a 29-year-old former Big Ten assistant sports-information director who never had been in charge of anything, Byers would end his secretive (he almost never gave interviews) and near-dictatorial reign 36 years later, having turned the NCAA into a giant threshing machine that spit out money like chaff in the wind.

Profits? Yes. Lots of sports, especially for men? Yes.

But Byers knew it had gone astray. His life’s work was a mistake.

The money and power for so many in big-time college sports — including coaches, athletic-department administrators, TV networks, bowl-game execs, advertising agents, etc. — come, no matter how you want to slice it or obscure it with hundreds of pages of incomprehensible rules, violations and platitudes, on the backs of young athletes.

Byers was a driven, brilliant man. But many could have turned free labor into profit, all under the guise of the so-called gift of ‘‘amateurism.’’ Byers knew the lie, but he waited until he was out of office to admit it publicly.

‘‘Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue; it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice . . . ,’’ he wrote in his 1995 book, ‘‘Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.’’

Me, I’d call that camouflage a huge moral issue. But no matter. Wrong is wrong.

Byers ripped everything the NCAA had become under his watch. He even acknowledged that schools could do what the NCAA did without it: ‘‘NCAA football television lies buried in a graveyard under a headstone carved by the CFA [College Football Association, which successfully sued the NCAA to make its own TV deals]. The basketball tournament finances the organization, but it would not be difficult to create a new Final Four outside the NCAA. Some 80 to 100 major basketball-playing institutions could do it easily.’’

When I interviewed Byers some 20 years ago, I regarded him as a man worthy both of gratitude and contempt. In a lesser way, he reminded me of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who ramped up the Vietnam War, only to decry its devastation and his own wrongheadedness much later, when it was far too late.

Maybe it was a year of reflection and penance, but McNamara’s memoir ‘‘In Retrospect’’ came out in 1995, the same year as Byers’ apologia, and McNamara confessed that his own conduct in the Vietnam War was ‘‘wrong, terribly wrong.’’

Slim comfort to the 58,000 U.S troops killed in that conflict. Yet it is better for men of influence to admit their mistakes late than to hide them for all time.

I even asked Byers in a confused and stupefied way: ‘‘Why now? Why when nobody cares about what you say and you have no power?’’

I don’t remember how he responded because I was so caught up in my own thoughts. And they were these: ‘‘This once-arrogant man who created a sports monstrosity that I have railed against throughout my journalistic career is now on my side. Beyond on my side. He has called the NCAA’s actions ‘white-collar crime involving the young’ and ‘an airtight racket of supplying cheap athletic labor.’ ’’

There are people out there now, such as Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, a powerful new voice in the NCAA and the chairman of the new Division I Council, who understand the error of fun sports turned into mercenary exploitations.

‘‘Shame on us,’’ he has said, for example, about allowing ‘‘one-and-done’’ freshmen with no educational interest to dominate NCAA basketball.

‘‘We’ve gotten to the point where it is time for a timeout,’’ Phillips said. ‘‘And everything should be on the table. Nothing’s sacred.’’

In other words, it’s time to rethink all the NCAA has become.

Byers surely would agree, if he only could.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander