How baseball history proves the NCAA wrong
Kirby Lee / Reuters

Baseball was under anti-trust assault once again. Danny Gardella was a left fielder and first baseman who hit .268/.344/.434 in 168 games for the New York Giants over the 1944 and 1945 seasons. Facing a roster crunch as some of the Giants' best players returned from World War II, Gardella turned down a $5,000 contract with the Giants to take a $13,000 pact with Veracruz of the Mexican League. 

Gardella was one of 23 major leaguers to bolt for Mexico, as Stuart Banner wrote in The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption. To prevent players like Johnny Pesky, Phil Rizzuto and Pete Reiser who were offered up to and even exceeding 10 times their American salaries to play in Mexico, baseball commissioner Albert B. "Happy" Chandler banned all players who left for Mexico for the next five years.

Veracruz only offered Gardella $5,000 for a second season, and so he returned home to New York. Gardella, who was limited to semi-professional baseball, eventually became the next to challenge Major League Baseball's anti-trust exemption under the claim that the reserve clause violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.

CHAOS WOULD RESULT, reads a subheadline on page 3 of the Milwaukee Sentinel's sports section from February 10th, 1949, as Gardella's case reached the Supreme Court. The following passage, from an AP report on the case, carries the typical media bias favoring the sport's powers that be:

"Without the [reserve] clause, a player could offer his services each year to the highest bidder. Chaos would result, officials of the game declare, if the reserve clause ever is successfully attacked."

One column to the left, Sentinel sports writer Lloyd Larson lays out the repercussions in greater detail:

Substitute ordinary, every day contractual relations, which would include the right to move from one club to another, and you'd see either a complete collapse of the baseball structure or a wave of secret sneak agreements much worse than the reserve clause.

This isn't baseball's fight alone. The props holding up professional football, basketball and hockey could be kicked away, too. Although those sports aren't as completely organized as baseball, they can't continue to exist without baseball's basic element, namely: Absolute control over playing personnel.

It is the same issue at hand as the NCAA faces its latest charge in court. Ed O'Bannon's antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over rights to names, images and likenesses continued Thursday in California court, and NCAA president Mark Emmert took the stand in a long-awaited and much-questioned move by the organization. Everything Emmert says is saturated in jargon and business speak, but much the same spirit can be found in these excerpts from his testimony:

The pay to a professional coach is very different than the nature of the student-athlete's relationship to the university. The coach has been a paid individual as long as there have been paid coaches, and student-athletes are amateurs. The fact coaches are getting paid more doesn't change those relationships at all.

...

To convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it into minor league sports. And we know that in the U.S. minor league sports aren't very successful either for fan support or for the fan experience.

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It's one of the most fundamental principles of the NCAA and intercollegiate athletics. They have always seen and assumed that intercollegiate athletics is about the notion that these are members of the student body. They're not hired employees conducting games for entertainment. They're not a random group of folks that just come together to play sports.

...

Direct payment as an inducement (to recruits) is obviously fundamentally different than to say you're going to be in this locker room or that stadium. Member schools would certainly find that an uncompetitive situation and wouldn't want to be a part of a championship that is driven by that.

To the question of whether or not college players have the right to sell their names, images and likenesses (or be paid for their work in any other way), Emmert's answers are, in order, tautological (coaches are paid because they have always been paid), factually untrue (minor league baseball draws 40 million or more fans on a yearly basis), irrelevant, and irrelevant.

Of course, to Emmert, his last two arguments are of the utmost relevance, because without them, the National Collegiate Athletic Association serves no purpose. Emmert is certainly correct when he says amateurism is one of the most fundamental principles of the NCAA. He may or may not be correct in saying member schools would opt out of the championships should pay for play enter the picture. I doubt it, but at least Emmert has some ammo here: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has threatened to take the conference to scholarship-free Division III if O'Bannon wins his case rather than endure a reformed system.

But what matters here is that both Emmert and the Lloyd Larson's of the world who portended baseball's doom should Major League Baseball have lost its antitrust case to Gardella follow the same erroneous presumption. Emmert assumes that without the NCAA, there would be no such thing as college sports, and Larson assumes that without Major League Baseball and without its reserve clause there would be no such thing as baseball.  

The history of sports in America makes this claim obviously absurd, as Major League Baseball and the other major sports leagues have only grown since the reserve clause and its salary-restricting power was destroyed. Those owners who believed baseball as they knew it would come to an end with the onset of free agency were correct, as the business of baseball today would be unrecognizable to the general manager of the 1960s. The baseball they knew was merely replaced by baseball that is willing to pay players a rate commensurate with the demand for their talent.

Nobody has a clue what a college sports world without the NCAA would look like, and the unknown can be scary. But it has become overwhelmingly clear that the NCAA is unwilling to treat players as workers rather than opportunities for economic exploitation. As with baseball and the reserve clause, college sports would not simply die without the protection of the NCAA. The college sports fan is too powerful, in terms of both their combined dollars and enthusiasm for the sport. A replacement would emerge, and given the NCAA's track record, any replacement is bound to be an improvement.

Sports fans are told so often that they would have nothing without the guiding light of the league or governing body. We are told that baseball and Major League Baseball are interchangeable, that the demise of the NCAA would lead to the death of one of America's longest sports traditions. I, for one, believe we can do better. I am willing to take that chance.

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How baseball history proves the NCAA wrong
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