Tag Archives: Machiavelli

Medieval politcal theory and the NCAA

The NCAA is a unique governing body. With a litany of rules to enforce and just a short arm with which to do such, they find themselves in a difficult situation. How can they police if there is no fear of reprecussions? How can they bite with all that bark? Let’s get medieval.

In his political doctrine, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli addresses whether a leader should be feared or loved. “Both,” he says, “but it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

A feared leader is a followed leader and last week the NCAA got its wish.

Washington and coach Lorenzo Romar cancelled a scrimmage, a scrimmage, with NBA alumni (a pretty solid group from the Husky family) in fear of breaking an NCAA rule. The to-be-violated rule states that former players cannot attend practices if it has been promoted ahead of time. Romar had publicized the event on local radio, KJR-AM, in effect poisoning the fun. They would later carry through with the scrimmage, closing it to media and the public in accordance with NCAA law.

Indeed, rules are rules, and Washington did the right thing in cancelling the scrimmage to avoid any wrist slapping. But it begs the question, is the NCAA scaring the right people?

Also last week, it was announced that Xavier’s Tu Holloway would be suspended one game for playing too much basketball (read this tweet from Jay Bilas). He played in two summer leagues instead of the permitted one league. Again, rules are rules as XU coach, Chris Mack reminds us, “Sometimes there are silly rules out there, but as silly as they are, you have to follow them. Sometimes I don’t like going 55 miles an hour on 71 in certain places but I have to follow the law.”

But now we’re back to the question. A feared leader may be the most effective but who is supposed to be spooked?

Should it be teams trying to promote their season with a fun alumni game? All-Americans trying to get a little summer run? Or should it be street agents, shady boosters, and cutthroat coaches (no pun intended)?

In Chapter 18 of The Prince (Concerning The Way In Which Princes Should Keep Faith), Machiavelli addresses a number of commendable traits pertinent to leadership. A Prince must keep faith, integrity, be merciful, and upright; sound characteristics indeed. But the philosopher continues, “It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.” To summarize: make it look like you mean well.

Ah, like enforcing nominal infractions (self-reported at that) and dolling out subsequent suspensions while the real bad guys (oh hey, Edward Rife, Nevin Shapiro, Joel Bell) run amuck, untouchable by college athletics’ governing body? But hey, sitting Tim Abromaitis – the Notre Dame senior suspended four games for playing in an exhibition game three years ago – undoubtedly provides the appearance of good governance.

For who can argue with the letter of the law?

Ultimately, it’s a broken system. The NCAA holds no jurisdiction over half of its offenders and really stands to benefit from its biggest earners. As Dan Wetzel explains in light of the recent Michael Beasley law suit, turning a blind eye on any rules transgression is a financial win for anyone and everyone. In Beasley’s case, his agent scored an NBA-bound client and Beasley received handouts and favors while the NCAA cashed in on the talents of an 18-year-old to whom they paid nothing. This of course went conveniently unnoticed by NCAA rule enforcers during Beasley’s time as a student-athlete.

I won’t venture to conjure up a solution; I don’t know the rules nearly well enough and don’t swing a heavy enough bat to make that leap. But, like an umpire’s strike zone, I would ask that the NCAA simply be consistent. I know such a request doesn’t parallel Machiavellian rule – make the people think you’re doing a great job – but pointing the finger can only last so long.

Plus, I’d much rather watch NBA alumni scrimmages and Tu Holloway and Tim Abromaitis play despite wee infractions than pretend I care about vacated wins and Final Four appearances from seasons past.

In the final chaper, Machiavelli anecdotally lays out the oppressive-turned-flourishing empires of several ancient societies. He suggests that each fell into the dark before being drawn back into the light by a heroic and brave leader (two interjected thoughts: this and Suck-for-Luck). Perhaps we’ve reached the NCAAs darkest hour? Maybe it can’t get any worse?

While I don’t think there will be a knight in shining armor – that’s not the NCAA’s course – I do believe change can and should be on the horizon. Some steps have been made towards vacating the selectively Drachonian recruiting laws. Just last week the NCAA announced coaches can place unlimited calls and texts with recruits after their sophomore year. A small step but a step nonetheless.

Ultimately, the objective of Machiavelli’s work was to help make better leaders. To be such, shady tactics may be involved, but the end goal is a better situation for all. The NCAA appears to have the shady part down, next is the whole better situation thing.

The task to uphold amateurism is a difficult one. The NCAA’s job is not enviable to be sure. But no matter where the NCAA goes from here, no matter how bad it may ever get, know that we’ll always have this: