Commentary: How A Former Sportswriter From Kansas City Changed NCAA Culture Forever

Mar 9, 2016

It’s hard to believe that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship — the main event of March Madness — was, for years, boringly sane, with all of eight teams. Filling out a bracket probably wasn’t that exciting when the second round was also the Final Four.

It all changed when a former sports writer from Kansas City named Walter Byers was hired as the NCAA’s first executive director in 1951. The Westport High School alum boosted the tourney from eight to sixteen teams, and it only grew from there. Over his decades-long reign, he also cut money-spinning TV and licensing deals, and transformed a meek nonprofit into the nearly billion-dollar-a-year business it is today.

But it was also on Byers’s watch that so many petty rules were put in place in the name of amateurism—he even coined the term “student-athlete” to distinguish players from employees to ward off a workers comp lawsuit… and his enforcers tracked down and punished every little violation, usually without anything resembling due process. According to journalists Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss, Byers was “secretive, despotic, stubborn, and ruthless… His imprint was so strong that the NCAA’s culture today is not very different from the one he imposed on it.”

Byers’s story comprises the first chapter of their bestseller, Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA. They are among the latest to make the case against the hypocrisy and injustice of collegiate sports, which grow ever more lucrative… while its players are denied even basic compensation beyond scholarships. A free plane ticket for an athlete’s mother could earn him a suspension and threaten his career prospects — yet coaches glide from one million-dollar payday to the next.

If the NCAA is a monster, then Walter Byers was Dr. Frankenstein. And he’s largely been forgotten. Byers passed away quietly last year at age 93 on his ranch northwest of Topeka. The few feature-length obituaries were really the first time he’d been in the news in more than a decade. His name was rarely spoken—least of all in the hallways of NCAA headquarters.

Not because an old despot shouldn’t be celebrated—but because, even before stepping down in 1987, he had turned against his own creation. “I think there’s an inherent conflict that has to be resolved,” he told Sports Illustrated. “We’re in a situation where we…say it’s improper for athletes to get, for example, a new car. Well, is that morally wrong? Or is it wrong because we say it’s wrong?”

In 1995, Byers codified his remorse in a memoir-slash-manifesto entitled Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes. The retired exec described the outfit he’d built as a conspiracy, and called for reforms such as letting athletes earn money on the side and transfer schools without penalty. Nocera and Strauss write that all the current critics are unwittingly advancing Byers’s last crusade: “Virtually everything the reformers would call for had been laid out long before by the very man who made the NCAA a cartel.”

Sports, for all their positive influence, are supposed to be a distraction. It’s easy enough to watch with blinders on. But for the thinking sports fan, cognitive dissonance is on the rise, as our love of the game increasingly runs up against our conscience.

Change will come, but when and how is not yet clear. And even Byers didn’t have long-term answers. And maybe fans watching the tourney on TV and pony-ing up five bucks for the office pool shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the same blame as the man who created the monster.

But his story should make our couches a little less comfortable, as we contemplate our own role in all the madness.

Victor Wishna is a regular commentator on KCUR's Up To Date.