Play It Again Sham: NCAA Doublespeak and Hypocrisy in Water Polo

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet
02/01/07

Shortly after the very successful 2006 Premier League Series (D1 and D2), the NCAA reportedly suspended competing NCAA players. The 2007 Premier League was immediately put on hold due to the NCAA prohibition(s) which viewed the Premier League as a violation of NCAA Regulations.

In the wake of this, I am appalled by the hypocrisy of the NCAA, uttering noble words about protection of the student athlete while collecting millions of dollars from the sweat of what in actuality, is the indentured servitude of a few talented teenagers in football and basketball.  How can water polo be compared to the cash machines of football and basketball, you ask? That is exactly my question…

So…Who was the rat and why has the Premier League been attacked?  Rumor lays it at the feet of the new compliance officer at USC who ran excitedly back to her former employer…yes, folks…the NCAA… with the charge that the Premier League is an NCAA violation.  Perhaps this compliance officer thought Jovan Vavic to be a foot shuffling mild mannered phys-ed teacher… YOWSA… we would have paid a good price to be a fly on the USC AD’s wall when Jovan discovered his female compliance officer’s ill thought action. This confrontation was undoubtedly a lost revenue opportunity of substantial proportions.

Unfortunately, the 2007 Premier League saga continues, through hearings, hoopla and assorted mayhem with the current outcome somewhat uncertain as the NCAA forwards the case to ALL member school’s compliance officers for individual decisions. In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have 110 lb, underpaid, overworked Michelle Baker (with no staff) representing the Premier League. In the opposite corner, we have fat and powerful compliance officers from 56 well funded universities (with ample staff).  After having heard this story, I will NOT be well disposed to any disparaging remarks about Michelle’s tenacity or professionalism…A big Kudos is due Michelle for being willing to take on the NCAA establishment.

Origins of Premier League

USA Water Polo’s Premier League was established 5 years ago by then Men’s National Team coach, Ratko Rudic.  Ratko’s background in the club system of Europe convinced him that the NCAA paradigm as applied to water polo was the main ingredient in the USA’s failure to medal (or, indeed, compete with the top 10) internationally. Quite simply, the NCAA was effectively culling our top athletes between the ages of 17 and 23 and restricting them to a 4 month season under the guise of “protecting” the student athlete”. In comparison, our European counterparts season (Euro League and LEN Trophy) have a 9 month season, allowing the athletes to train with the same coach and same players during that time. Clearly, to Ratko, at least, Europeans have more than TWICE the length of training time than do our “NCAA protected” counterparts.

Last years Premier League was expanded to a 10 team D2 league in the Northeast Zone and a 10 team league in So Cal adding an ADDITIONAL 300 players to the current 150 playing in D1. Imagine… a 200% increase in participation in 1 year. This coup of Ricardo Azevedos would be worthy of headline banners in Fortune Magazine were he on Wall Street. But not here, folks… Enter the NCAA monopoly.

Having been a participant in the administration of the Northeast Zone Premier League last year, I am mystified at the NCAA’s objections. Our local team, the Westies, was a cobbled together team from the Lost Boys schools of Slippery Rock and Salem International with buttressing from Gannon, Penn State Behrend and Mercyhurst. The schools are 6 hours apart so they could not train together. Coaching was accomplished by a triumvirate from Gannon, Salem, North Allegheny High School and a Croatian National on his way to LA. Tournaments involved 11 hour drives to cheap hotels sleeping 4-6 in a room and existing on McDonalds and free breakfast food. The fortunate 6 oversized athletes who traveled in our 6 passenger Caravan shared seats with wet caps, luggage, score sheets and learned far more than they cared to know about String Theory and Free Electrons from the loquacious Dr Bertocci through the hills of PA after playing 6 or 8 games.

Wow…Now THERE ‘S a luxury junket that needs the NCAA police.

The NCAA Is the Only Game in Town - What About the USOC?

In the wake of the NCAA-Premier League conflict, I am reminded of the classic film scene in Casablanca, where the corrupt Captain Louis Renault closes down Humphrey Bogart's casino, and claims that he is "I am shocked…SHOCKED, to discover that there is gambling going on!" As Renault professes his outrage, a young flunky hands him a wad of cash and says, "Your winnings, sir.”

This years (continuing) attempt by the NCAA to shut down the Premier League is, like Captain Renaults oft quoted hypocrisy, the latest NCAA tactic to retain their monopoly on sports played by athletes in the 17-22 year old age bracket. No longer content to hold Division 1 football and basketball players tight in the grip of indentured servitude, the NCAA has branched out into the third tier sport of water polo, attempting to eliminate competition under the shallow guise of “protection” of the “student athlete.”  

In the case of water polo, the NCAA juggernaut has declared the Premier League in violation of NCAA regulations due to the cost ($100 tryout fee to finance the league) and 4 yes…4 Friday late afternoon playing dates. Apparently, the NCAA fails to see the hypocrisy of their own multiple weekday NCAA schedule and the “booster club” finances of many schools. It is ludicrous to see the NCAA (home of $100,000 plus per school in scholarships a year) protesting the $100 tryout fee of the cash strapped, pool strapped, staff strapped Premier League. This is the height of doublespeak by a group of bureaucratic flunkeys whose sole intent is to justify their existence, seemingly at the expense of an entire nation of water polo players.

The NCAA Sub Committee on Endangered Sports makes impressive noises about “saving” sports like water polo but in the end, their remedial actions seem to be pathetically limited to participating in “liaison” positions to the USOC which appear to me to be little more than cocktail party and convention gravy trains for a few select NCAA bureaucrats.  The FACT is that the NCAA has lost more water polo programs than it has gained in the past 5 years DESPITE the impact of Title IX.  Additionally, there is NO evidence to suggest that the NCAA rushed in to even pick up the phone in an effort to “protect the student athlete” when the Grove City, Slippery Rock and Salem International “student athletes” were assassinated by cost cutting school administrators.  The abysmal record of the NCAA speaks for itself in the aquatic sports.

The NCAA's rules are a labyrinth of Byzantine mystery to anyone who has heard of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. What is encouraged in NCAA competition is forbidden (by the same institution) in other competitions even if that competition takes place in the summer…when school is not in session. It seems that in return for a “scholarship”, teenaged athletes must sell their souls to the company store, giving up any and all rights to participate in organized sports sponsored by any other entity.

“Scholarship” implies we give athletes an education in exchange for their service to the institution, whereas the most successful recruiting arguments (for football and basketball) are how much media exposure the athlete will receive, how playing for the school’s team will increase the athlete’s chances making it to the pros, and even how much the athletic program can do to “ease” the athlete through academic requirements. Athletes who want an education are often prevented from getting one due to the demands of intercollegiate sports on their time, particularly when, as we can see from the following table,  many are recruited without the prerequisite skills of other students.

NCAA Core Purpose and Value?

The stated purpose of the NCAA “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner “ has righteous words but shallow meaning for  endangered sports like synchronized swimming and water polo in an environment that caters to the multi million dollar corporations of NCAA football and basketball.  The time has come for the NCAA to fish or cut bait with the endangered sports…either relax the regulations to help nurture these sports or get out of the business altogether, keeping only the football and basketball moneymakers.

1. The NCAA Core Purpose is as follows:
Our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.
If this core purpose is, indeed the case, let us peruse the average SAT scores of  non athletes vs. (football and basketball) athletes at some of the top ACADEMIC credentialed schools in the NCAA;

School Name

SAT – Non-athlete

SAT – Athlete

Duke

1399

887

Northwestern

1344

974

Virginia

1293

854

Michigan

1271

834

How does this disparity in SAT scores illustrate the NCAA purpose that “the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”? This is more blatant hypocrisy. If this is, indeed the case, why are water polo athletes with their far higher average SAT scores treated like the proverbial red headed step children by the NCAA?

2. The NCAA Core Value #1 is as follows:
The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.

Yet, a 2001 Alfred University study of over 325,000 athletes at more than 1,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association schools

  • FOUR IN FIVE experienced some form of hazing to join a college athletic team.
  • ONE IN FIVE was subjected to unacceptable and potentially illegal hazing. They were kidnapped, beaten or tied up and abandoned. They were also forced to commit crimes – destroying property, making prank phone calls or harassing others.
  • HALF were required to participate in drinking contests or alcohol-related hazing.
  • TWO IN FIVE consumed alcohol on recruitment visits even before enrolling.
  • TWO THIRDS were subjected to humiliating hazing, such as being yelled or sworn at, forced to wear embarrassing clothing or forced to deprive oneself of sleep, food or personal hygiene.

If this is a balance, my mathematics skills are sadly out of date.

Is the NCAA the 600 Pound Gorilla of Amateur Sports- Similar to What They Said the AAU Was?

For every water polo athlete that receives a college athletic scholarship, there are 3 or 4 water polo athletes that received only an academic scholarship or chose to play on a club or other non-NCAA team. Has this fact prevented age group kids from playing the sport? I would argue that our lack of marketing the sport has more to do with the number of kids competing than does the lack of NCAA scholarships.

The NCAA needs to rethink their position on water polo and other “endangered” sports and use their clout to nurture rather that restrict its development.  If this cannot be accomplished, I would ask if water polo might be better off following the example of college crew here in the East…where the institutions and athletes have fought a battle to keep the NCAA out…and neither the athletes nor the sport have suffered from the lack thereof.

The popularity of and attendance at the USWAP JO’s is a clear indication of the popularity of the sport at the age group (NON COLLEGIATE) club competition level.

The NCAA institution also needs to cowboy up and admit to what they are…a greedy, moneymaking sweat shop dedicated to maintaining the indentured servitude of a few outstanding teenagers who play football and basketball. Cloaking the true mission in the noble sounding but purely hypocritical verbiage of the “protection of the student athlete” is an insult to our collective intelligence.

Europe seems to do just fine with a smaller population and a low cost non university centric club system…I submit that were we to toss off the bondage of the NCAA, we might achieve the same results. Is it possible that NCAA actually stands for, No Class At All ?