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Death To The NCAA

Charlie Baker Is The NCAA’s Attempt To Put The Horses Back In The Barn

Charlie Baker
Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (God save it!) inaugurated as its 73rd governor Maura Healey, the first woman, the first openly gay person, and the first former collegiate point guard ever elected to the post. She replaced a Republican named Charlie Baker, who was on the basketball roster at Harvard, but who didn't play much. Former Republican governors of Massachusetts generally go on to be front folk for local corporations, or, occasionally, members of a Republican president's cabinet. Not Charlie Baker. He took the job of being president of the NCAA and, at first glance, that seems altogether bizarre. But before we get to the event of Charlie Baker as the new NCAA honcho, a brief explanation of Massachusetts politics—and specifically, our darling Republican mascots—is in order. This is also for my benefit since Baker's new gig represents the strangest collision of my two career reporting enthusiasms since I covered the inauguration of Governor Jesse Ventura of the great state of Minnesota.

(The highlight of that strange interlude was the arrival of Ventura's old SEAL team, including his Master Chief. Apparently, it is a point of pride among the SEALs not to wear underwear, and the Master Chief has the authority to ... ah ... check. There was a tremulous moment in which it looked like seven of the toughest-looking guys I've ever seen, including the governor-elect, were going to drop trou under the wintry gaze of the portraits of Ventura's predecessors.)

Massachusetts Republicans are a different species of political fauna. The great wave of crazy that overwhelmed their political party hit the Berkshires and rolled back, probably into Carl Paladino's basement. Part of the reason for our Republicans' relative sanity is that there are so few of them. Registered Republicans account for barely 10 percent of Massachusetts voters. In the state's House of Representatives, the Democrats hold a 125-27 advantage. In the state Senate, it's 36-3. There are almost as many Pilgrims alive in the Commonwealth as there are Republicans in our government. Nevertheless, we regularly elect Republican governors, possibly because we know in our heart of hearts that somebody has to keep an eye on the legislature so the members don't steal absolutely everything. 

Baker was a very typical Massachusetts Republican. He came out of the business community; his previous gig was as CEO of health-care giant Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. It was his stewardship of HPHC that had the state's Republicans begging him to run for almost a decade. He finally surrendered in 2010, but he was whipped by Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick. He finally got elected in 2014, beating Martha Coakley, who did not have the best decade, election-wise. His two terms were mainstream business Republicanism. He did, however, oversee the arrival in the Commonwealth of legalized gambling, so there's that and, since the NCAA's "member institutions" these days are scrambling to partner with gaming interests like aquarium seals at feeding time, Baker opening Massachusetts to gambling not only was not the drawback it once might have been, but also could be a point in his favor.

Drawing on my limited experience with him, Baker seems like a perfectly adequate and predictable choice. He doesn't come out of the NCAA executive fold, which is a major plus as far as I'm concerned. He's amiable company, comfortable with the glad hand and a boon companion around the shrimp bowl and the salad bar. His rich-white-guy credentials are impeccable. And as someone taking on the job of running a shaky institution in heavy transition, Baker probably outshone all the other candidates. At Harvard Pilgrim, he brought it through the changes wrought by what became known as Romneycare, and he brought the state into the gambling era. Both transitions went very smoothly. For years, the NCAA sought its president from the ranks of men who conformed to Mencken's assessment of Calvin Coolidge: "He had no ideas, but he was not a nuisance." That is not Charlie Baker and, if his brief is to help the NCAA transition into oblivion, I will throw him a big parade.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't care who the next president of the NCAA was unless that person announced that his first order of business would be to shut the place down and sell off the furniture. The NCAA was a nest of wealthy parasites when it was founded and it didn't get any better down through the years. Now, it's an obsolete nest of wealthy parasites. The new order of college athletics is coming whether the various be-blazered buffet-grazers want it to or not. Last year, the organization finally surrendered the point that college athletes owned their names, images, and likenesses. Since then, Doug Edert, the star of Saint Peter's run in the NCAA tournament, has signed up with Buffalo Wild Wings, which he appears to be eating in a handball court. Jordan Bohannon plugged a fireworks company. John Daly II, who plays golf for Arkansas, signed with Hooters, which proves something about genetics. And the unusual names hung on athletes have been a boon. My favorite is probably football's Decoldest Crawford, who signed, naturally, with a local HVAC company. This is the brave new world into which Charlie Baker has wandered, and it also is the most obvious reason they sought him out.

The essential job of the next NCAA president will be to find a way to regain some of the control that it has lost over the people who do the real work. This is a phenomenon we've also seen in baseball. The reserve clause fell dead finally in 1975. A series of commissioners have dedicated their terms of office devising ways to recapture the control they enjoyed for decades. These have included collusion, forced work stoppages, and other destructive tactics that have done nothing good for anyone. Indications are that the NCAA may have plans to embark on a similarly destructive plan of action. 

Last spring, there was a spate of stories, all sourced to the NCAA, about "problems" with the NIL system. Sports Illustrated ran a story in which the NCAA enforcement apparatus warned that it would not tolerate NIL deals that violated what's left of the NCAA's moronic rulebook. Several high-profile coaches—most notably Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher—have gone public with their own solutions, Fisher has suggested that Congress get involved. Electing Tommy Tuberville to the Senate apparently has given every half-bright football coach in the South the idea that he's John C. Calhoun. Nice job, Georgia. 

Remarkably enough, the NCAA seems inclined toward ol' Jimbo's figurin'. As economist Andrew Zimbalist pointed out to WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, the organization has a wish list for Congress on the subject. It wants the ability to regulate the NIL market, certainly, but it also wants an exemption from the antitrust laws that would prevent further lawsuits like the one that opened the floodgates, and lawsuits that ultimately might force the NCAA to pay athletes legitimate salaries. This is right in Charlie Baker's wheelhouse. His real gifts always have been as a lobbyist. It was how he built up Harvard Pilgrim, which, in turn, is how he got elected governor in the first place. The man is a born front man.

Thus Baker can sell the NCAA's real goal—regaining control of its badly paid workforce—without looking like he's doing that. He has a long push up a dirt road. Already, Senator—Gawd—Tuberville, of all people, has said that an antitrust exemption is not on the agenda for this Congress. Tuberville and Senator Joe Manchin are working on a bill to "establish national standards" to regulate the NIL market. This, of course, is none of Congress's damn business and likely will end up only as a smorgasbord for trial lawyers.

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