The National Collegiate Athletic Association ran into something of a public-relations problem last week. Right after the news broke that Johnny Manziel was under investigation for allegedly taking money to sign autographs -- verboten for a student-athlete! -- ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas pointed out, via Twitter, that the NCAA had no problem making money off Manziel’s fame: Just go to ShopNCAAsports.com and type in Manziel’s name, and his Texas A&M jersey will come up for sale.
The NCAA quickly disabled the search function. And then came this statement from NCAA Executive Vice President Mark Lewis:
"Moving forward, the NCAA online shop will no longer offer college and university merchandise. In the coming days, the store’s website will be shut down temporarily and reopen in a few weeks as a marketplace for NCAA championship merchandise only. After becoming aware of issues with the site, we determined the core function of the NCAA.com fan shop should not be to offer merchandise licensed by our member schools."
This is rich. To begin with, I’m not sure how the NCAA figures it was made “aware of issues with the site.” Was it somehow news to the association that it was selling this merchandise on its own site? Strictly speaking, it probably would have been more accurate for Lewis to say that the NCAA was publicly shamed into action.
The action itself was, in a sense, progress. The NCAA has long insisted that it’s just a coincidence if fans buy a shirt with a particular number on it. They couldn’t possibly be choosing that number because it's the one their favorite player wears. (In Manziel’s case, No. 2.) By first enabling a search button that directly linked Manziel to his numbered jersey, and then removing the merchandise from its site, the NCAA has at least implicitly acknowledged the absurdity of this claim.
But the NCAA is still missing the point. The problem isn't that the organization engages in commerce; it’s that it prevents college athletes from doing the same. The NCAA doesn't need to sell this merchandise. It will still make a fortune on its TV contracts, leaving its member schools to profit from jerseys made popular by the players who perform, without pay, in front of millions every Saturday.
The original sin is not selling the talents of athletes. It’s the creation -- and perpetuation -- of a cartel that effectively cuts those athletes out of the profits. Re-directing money from the NCAA to its member schools is just a fig leaf. Don't be ashamed of your desire to wet your beak, NCAA. Just share some of the wealth with the labor force that makes your product.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)