Before noon on Wednesday, February 12, Governor Pat McCrory pleaded with North Carolinians to stay off the roads during the crippling blizzard bearing down on the state: “Don’t put your stupid-hat on,” he said. Yet a little after 5 p.m., there we were, being chauffeured down a snow-covered highway toward the University of North Carolina’s “Dean Dome,” stupid-hats snugly in place. UNC had canceled classes hours ago, as had nearby Duke, but the night’s big matchup between their archrival men’s basketball teams was still on. Our SUV, operated by a local guy with a thick Piedmont accent, inched along at 15 miles per hour, at one point passing an abandoned postal-service truck. Ice fell from the sky. Jay Bilas, ESPN’s preeminent college basketball analyst, rode shotgun.
The game was finally postponed—only after Duke claimed its bus was unable to make it through the storm. Bilas now had the night off. He also had fresh fodder for his alternate role as the NCAA’s most dangerous critic. The NCAA bars member-schools from compensating athletes beyond scholarships, because they are “students first.” But those same players are required (at the risk of losing said scholarships) to participate in games even when school is closed for safety reasons. For all the talk of “student athletes,” NCAA players are actually cogs in a massive and lucrative industry, one that halts production only when it has no other choice
This is the sort of rank hypocrisy that Bilas takes great joy in calling out. In the way of contemporary dissidents, he registers his complaints most prominently through Twitter, treating his 656,000 followers to indignant barbs about the “NCAA and its silly rules.” But Bilas has also pressed his case in interviews with outlets ranging from obscure fan sites to Bloomberg View. He has gone so far as to publicly urge the organization’s president, Mark Emmert, to resign.
Stinging calls for reforming college sports aren’t new—in a much-circulated 2011 Atlantic essay, historian Taylor Branch wrote that the current system “has an unmistakable whiff of the plantation” about it. What makes Bilas’s attacks so effective is the perch from which he launches them. With his close-cropped widow’s peak and intense gaze, the 50-year-old is one of the marquee faces of the network chiefly responsible for creating college sports’ mystique. He’s the ultimate insider, prized by hoops connoisseurs for the incisiveness of his analysis and his own love of the game. So when Bilas says that paying players not only wouldn’t rob college sports of their romance but in fact might also make them more fun to watch, fans believe him.
Back at the Sheraton Chapel Hill, Bilas propped his 6-foot-8-inch frame on a stool not quite up to the task. Also ensconced at the hotel bar were ESPN play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman and two of his friends, who, like a call-in show version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, took turns prompting Bilas into anti-NCAA soliloquies:
“This is a multibillion-dollar business like the NBA or NFL or Major League Baseball that just happens to be run out of a college campus,” went one of Bilas’s rants. “And they’re claiming, ‘No, we deserve to have free labor.’ ”
“Did you know that six baseball coaches in the Southeastern Conference are making more than one million dollars a year? Baseball coaches. And they claim they don’t have enough money for the players.”
“If you worked at the student newspaper, they could pay you whatever they wanted. How can we say that players should be treated ‘like any other student’? They’re not treated as well as any other student.”
One of Shulman’s friends observed: “You certainly don’t get tired talking about it.”
No, he does not. And there is no more persuasive advocate for upending college sports’ status quo.
Bilas has long nursed an iconoclastic streak. More than 30 years ago, as a Southern California prep kid in an era when players often picked colleges close to home, he took his talents to the Research Triangle, helping Mike Krzyzewski make his first of many Final Four runs. Bilas had his inaugural dust-up with the NCAA while still a Duke player, when he served on a long-range planning committee; his beef was with rules that prevent athletes from transferring immediately when the coach who recruited them switches schools. A decade later, after winning two national championships as an assistant under Coach K (and earning a J.D. from Duke Law), he decided against subjecting his wife and future children to the itinerant coaching lifestyle and took a position at a Charlotte firm, where he remains of counsel. He started doing radio for Duke games, driving to and from Durham in an evening for $200. He joined ESPN in 1995.
At some point, Bilas concluded that he couldn’t abide criticizing players who take questionable shots and coaches who make bad substitutions while keeping silent about the exploitation of young athletes. It’s easy to imagine how this might have cost him a degree of job security. ESPN has a track record of undue deference toward its broadcast partners; last year (to cite just one example), it reportedly pulled out of a critical documentary about football head injuries at the NFL’s request. So far, though, the network has been fine with Bilas’s broadsides against the NCAA. It seems to see him as a useful exception, an antidote to the perception of punches pulled. “Bilas is one of those people it can point to—a get out of jail free card” to wave when the network has its editorial independence challenged, says James Andrew Miller, co-author of the ESPN history Those Guys Have All The Fun. Mark Gross, senior vice president for production and remote events, told me he has never asked Bilas to tone it down, a claim Bilas confirms.
As a critic, Bilas favors a stance of lawyerly bewilderment—the prosecutor appealing to unassailable logic. (“This is where Jay’s legal background serves him well,” Coach K told me.) He thrives on showcasing the small outrages that flow from the big one. His most high-profile protest came last August, when, responding to a tip, he pulled up the NCAA’s online store and entered the name of Heisman Trophy–winning Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel into the search box. Nothing should have happened: College athletes are barred from making merchandise deals, and the NCAA doesn’t sell gear representing specific players. But, sure enough, up popped a page hawking A&M jerseys bearing the number 2, which, guess what, is Manziel’s. Bilas took a screenshot—“cause I know they can’t change that,” he explained, in that adorable way old people talk about the Internet—and tweeted it. He then did the same for several more jerseys bearing the numbers but not the names of big-time college stars. Fans were gleefully scandalized. ESPN, perhaps the most efficient vertically integrated corporation since U.S. Steel, had one more story to milk.
On the morning of the UNC-Duke game-that-wasn’t, Bilas sat in his hotel room, reviewing tape of old games on his laptop. Twice he told the maid to come back later. After watching Duke run the same bland half-court offensive set about ten straight times, Bilas switched over to footage of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. He had a point to make. The Spurs have more talented and experienced players, of course, but also operate in a league designed to maximize the fan experience. They were magnitudes more exciting.
Bilas’s most provocative critique of the NCAA isn’t that the current system is unfair to the players. Everyone thinks that. More audaciously, Bilas also believes that the NCAA is holding back the game itself. For example: Professional men’s basketball has a 24-second shot clock, while in men’s college basketball the limit is 35 seconds—making it, Bilas said, “the slowest game on the planet.” He attributes that shortcoming, along with others such as inferior officiating, to the NCAA’s squeamishness about anything that even approaches the way the professional leagues run their shops. “If you jump into a committee meeting and say, ‘The NBA does this,’ the first reaction you’d get is a mental recoil,” he argued. “[The pros] have great rules, and they have great rules for a reason: They admit they’re selling their product, and we don’t.”
Bilas’s solution is to introduce college sports to the free market. Allow schools to offer players direct compensation; allow athletes to secure sponsorship deals, the way Olympians can. “I’m not saying there [would be] a mandate that they be paid more than their scholarships,” Bilas said. “Just let them.”
He is prepared to press this point for as long as it takes. With one important exception: For all his probity on social media, “College GameDay,” and “SportsCenter,” Bilas tries to avoid bashing NCAA governance while calling the action on the court. His reasoning is that fans have tuned in just to see some hoops. In fact, so has he. “When I walk into the arena,” he shrugged, “I’m not going to be saying, ‘Why isn’t this kid being paid?’ I’m going to the game. It’s a great game.”
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic.