Why you should care
Because even before March Madness, there was plenty of insanity surrounding college sports.
One year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey made the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) a daring offer: “If you don’t make your men professionals, we won’t either.”
Rickey and GMs for other professional clubs had long been poaching college players to fill their rosters, but Rickey, a former college athlete and coach, considered it fair play given the hypocrisy at the core of collegiate sports: proclaim the amateur ideal while quietly handing out payments to student athletes under the table.
The NCAA was a child of scandal from the start.
Rickey’s offer, however, did not so much fall on deaf ears as a toothless grin. Hard as it is to imagine today — as we gear up for another March Madness stage-managed by an all-powerful entity overseeing the multibillion-dollar operation of college sports — the NCAA was once a rather feckless bodyguard, accustomed to looking the other way while its member colleges canoodled with players. That is, until the two spring ingredients Americans love most — basketball and gambling — got thrown together and cooked in the crucible of scandal, giving the NCAA the chance it needed to take the helm of college sports once and for all.
The NCAA was a child of scandal from the start, conceived at the White House when President Teddy Roosevelt got together with the leaders of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Inadequate safety precautions, including no helmets, had caused the deaths of around 20 college football players in 1905, prompting defenders of the sport to scramble to preserve its integrity. Part of the solution hammered out by Roosevelt and the Ivy League crew was a new overarching body composed of 68 member colleges, the NCAA. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch explores in The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, it was not until the 1940s that the NCAA even had a full staff or charged member schools more than $25 in annual dues. “The NCAA enshrined amateur ideals for college players,” observes Branch, “while remaining hapless to enforce them.” In 1948, the NCAA attempted to promulgate a “Sanity Code,” designed to rein in an epidemic of concealed benefits — from payments to no-show jobs given to athletes — by restricting colleges to scholarships and financial aid for its athletes or risk being banned from competing. The colleges bristled, the Sanity Code was repealed and the insanity continued.
By 1951, the inmates were largely running the college sports asylum, when their warden arrived in the unlikely form of a 29-year-old college dropout named Walter Byers. A journalist who had been discharged from the Army for poor vision during World War II, Byers was a bizarre choice for the NCAA’s first executive director. Byers “wore cowboy boots and a toupee,” writes Branch, but the cowboy executive was also a born opportunist who quickly seized on the chance to boost the NCAA’s regulatory stature.
That chance also went by the name of Adolph Rupp, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky and arguably the most powerful man in college sports. (Rupp’s dominant team, the original “Fabulous Five” of college basketball, had won three titles in four seasons between 1948 and 1951.) When point-shaving scandals rocked several other colleges — with photos of basketball players getting booked splashed across national newspapers — Rupp denied rumors that Kentucky was fixing games for the benefit of gamblers. “They couldn’t touch my boys with a 10-foot pole,” he boasted.
But three of Rupp’s players were implicated, and it turned out that the fix was on in about 75 Kentucky games. Rupp pleaded ignorance, but one of the players would later contend that the coach, friendly with Lexington gamblers, often shared the upcoming game’s point spread with the players in the locker room before they took the court, suggesting he was aware of, if not actively facilitating, the point shavers. With its biggest basketball program tarnished and the credibility of college athletics on the line, Byers and the NCAA convinced college administrators at Kentucky — still a basketball power and currently ranked No. 1 — to agree to a one-year suspension of its college basketball program.
It was an unprecedented move, and Byers did not waste any time consolidating the aura of authority that it conveyed. When the University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame balked at the NCAA’s plan for exclusive control over all college sports television contracts (and a generous slice of the revenue), Byers persuaded other schools to isolate the two troublemakers, refusing to compete against them, until they backed down. Byers won again, the NCAA landed a $1.14 million deal with NBC in June 1952, and, “[o]nly one year into his job,” as Branch observes, “Byers had secured enough power and money to regulate all of college sports.”
It may not have been March, and it wasn’t exactly madness, but it’s pretty crazy when you think about it.