NCAA President Mark Emmert, who recently received a ringing endorsement from the NCAA Executive Committee despite being the central figure in an enormous lack of institutional control, explains the NCAA's mission thusly: “Our mission is to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes.”
Tell that to the Montclair State University women's basketball team that, despite an undefeated season, may have to play the NCAA tournament in hostile territory while Emmert and his NCAA cronies wage a political battle with the state of New Jersey over legalized sports gambling.
It's interesting how often the NCAA lets politics get in the way of student-athlete development. (We're not talking about the Miami debacle.)
I wish all I meant by politics was the typical bureaucratic "office politics" of, for example, what the NCAA says is or is not a violation. (Last I checked, giving a kid a bagel at your house is OK, but buying a bagel at a deli or putting cream cheese on it is a violation. I'm not joking.)
In the never-ending effort to "focus on the development of student-athletes," the NCAA often gets itself into fights with actual political ramifications well beyond its scope. Sadly, it has become standard practice for the NCAA to attempt to create leverage within these political battles by holding its own postseason tournaments hostage.
For example, the 2005 decision to ban any school from using a nickname or logo the organization deemed offensive to Native Americans in NCAA competitions was the collegiate governing body's way to force member institutions—including several state universities and colleges—to comply with its morality. This ban was challenged in 2005 by some state institutions like Illinois and Florida State, and has been challenged several times since, including as recently as 2012 in North Dakota.
Right or wrong, the NCAA habitually finds it justifiable to wage political battles through the random enforcement of its own rules, which, frankly, the organization seems to be making up as it goes along.
In late 2012, the NCAA decided to take a stand against sports gambling after the state of New Jersey announced plans to fight federal legislation precluding the state from opening sports books. There are just four states that have sports gambling on the books, and New Jersey recently passed a non-binding referendum to legalize sports gambling in the state's existing casinos and race tracks.
The revenue sports gambling could bring to New Jersey is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a vital new revenue stream for the cash-strapped state. The plan has overwhelming bipartisan support (full disclosure: I live in New Jersey and wholeheartedly support the move), especially after Hurricane Sandy ravaged many of the state's tourist destinations and has the state government scrounging for money anywhere it can find it.
In October, hearing of New Jersey's move to legalize sports gambling, the NCAA pulled five championships out of the state, despite the stipulation that New Jersey would prohibit betting on college games played in the state, as well as betting on any New Jersey college teams playing in or out of the state.
If the NCAA wants to fight the state of New Jersey, go right ahead and throw money at another fight you won't win. It's just…well…that old mission statement—that focus on the development of its student-athletes—rings rather hollow when it’s the student-athletes who suffer the most.
Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger wrote a piece last week about the Montclair State women's basketball team that qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the NJAC championship with a 27-0 regular season. Per Politi, the school will not be hosting any home NCAA tournament games—it could have hosted up to four in the tournament based on its top regional seeding—because the NCAA is stuck behind its hard-line stance against the state's new gambling laws.
Soon, New Jersey won't be the only state the NCAA will have to take this stance against. Per Politi:
[I]f New Jersey wins its court battle and its gambling law stands, states will be lining up to cash in. Already, similar bills have been crafted in California, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Eventually, the NCAA might have to hold its tournaments in Utah, or on the moon.
Until then, small New Jersey programs will suffer. The Montclair State women are exactly the athletes that the NCAA should be protecting, but instead, it’ll take away the home-court advantage it earned this season and deny them the excitement of playing in front of their classmates.
The issue doesn't stop at one team in one NCAA Division III tournament either. The NCAA threw a blanket over this gambling issue and made it a political battle without having the self-awareness to realize its own hypocrisy. (Oh, and good luck keeping your NCAA tournaments out of those other states too.)
It's hard to believe this ban is really about the NCAA not wanting to host events near places that might eventually feature sports gambling.
Northern Arizona University has hosted several Division I-AA (FCS) football playoff games and even some NIT basketball games over the last two decades. Flagstaff, Ariz., is about the same travel time from Laughlin, Nev., as Montclair is to Atlantic City (about two-and-a-half hours), with the only difference being a river that divides two states instead of a coastline that links just one.
Wait a second. Forget about two random cities in the desert. How about we look at what's going on this very season, right across New Jersey's border! The NCAA pulled out of New Jersey—including the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship that was to be held in Trenton—because the state agreed to pass a law that isn't even in practice, but the NCAA has no issue with using the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia as a first- and second-round host of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Why is that ridiculous? Philadelphia is 15 miles—and at least half an hour in actual driving time—closer to the Atlantic City casinos than Trenton.
It's not about proximity; it's about politics.
The NCAA has shown no issues with holding events near casinos, but the specter of sports gambling has the organization riding its sanctimonious horse out of town, no matter whom the plan really ends up hurting.
Let's not forget the NCAA awards an automatic bid to the winner of the Pac-12, Mountain West and WCC basketball tournaments, all held in Las Vegas this year. That's like having a party where you don't allow drugs but watch a dozen people share a bong on your front lawn before coming inside.
Wait. Let's circle back to the NCAA's hypocrisy.
The NCAA knows the men's basketball tournament is its biggest moneymaking event of the year, bringing in $10.8 billion over a 14-year span in television rights fees alone. Much of the excitement around March Madness is the understanding that fans gamble on the outcome of the tournament.
Nearly every office in America has a bracket pool during the tournament, and NCAA officials turn a blind eye to hundreds of thousands of illegal gambling pools because they help their bottom line far more than whoever gets bragging rights at the water cooler.
(According to reports, $12 billion was gambled on the NCAA tournament last year, with just—just—$100 million of it wagered in legal sports books.)
The NCAA doesn't want to be associated with gambling, but its marquee event wouldn't be the same without it.
If NCAA higher-ups took a hard-line stance with their own tournament, vowing to pull any NCAA events from cities, towns, municipalities or communities where someone was gambling on their tournament…Politi would be right. They would have to hold the tournament on the moon.
I wouldn't bet on lunar brackets happening any time soon. Wait, did I say bet? There goes any chance of an NCAA event being hosted near my house.
Oh, right, I live in New Jersey. It doesn't matter anyway.