College basketball's FBI scandal could create one positive: Amateurism's public trial

The best thing that can come out of the FBI investigation that's upending college basketball isn't that the four arrested high-major assistant coaches spend years in jail and never stalk the sidelines of a college basketball court again. It's not that Sean Miller's wiretapped (and disputed) phone call with an agent's runner could prematurely end what seemed like a Hall of Fame-bound career. And it's certainly not that the players (er, student-athletes) -- who've been linked to all levels of cheating, from accepting $100,000 to attend a certain school to breaking bread with an agent -- be forever tarnished with a scarlet letter for their association with this wide-ranging scandal.

The best thing that can come out of this case isn't even that the shady characters who operate on the margins of college basketball (or football or, for that matter, any college sport where money is to be made) are tossed out the door, and that the purity of amateur collegiate sports is restored.

No, the best result that can come out of the FBI investigation and the NCAA's response is this:

Amateurism itself must go on trial.

Because the way to fix this isn't just to root out the bad actors who feed off this broken system. It's to fix the system itself. And that can only be done with a spirited and honest public debate about the future of big-money amateur sports.

Let me take you back to your high school history class for an example of how a criminal trial can turn into a moral inquisition.

In 1925, a Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes was accused of violating a law that banned the teaching of human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial was a national sensation, the first trial to ever be broadcast on national radio and featuring two of the nation's most prominent attorneys, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Your high school history teacher might have showed you the film about the trial, Inherit the Wind. While the "Scopes Monkey Trial" was ostensibly about whether one teacher violated one law, the trial itself was really about the public debate on whether the theory that humans evolved from apes was compatible with Christianity, and whether that then-controversial science ought to be taught in public schools. At the outset of the trial, the judge told the jury to focus on whether a crime had been committed, not whether the law itself was flawed.

The jury found Scopes guilty, and the judge fined him $100. When he spoke in court afterward, he said this: "I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute." The trial gave a very public airing to some of the most controversial issues of the time. In time, the theory of evolution became widely accepted among Christians and non-Christians alike.

Nearly a century later, here we are, with a federal criminal prosecution where the underlying issues are of far greater societal consequence than the possible crimes at hand. I don't believe that any federal trials for the indicted assistant coaches, shoe company executives or agency employees will turn into the media circus that the Scopes Monkey Trial became. I do believe, however, the NCAA has in today's scandal a golden opportunity for future reform.

But this can happen only if the organization can break out of its institutional malaise and re-examine the entire point of college sports.

NCAA president Mark Emmert has said in the wake of recent reports detailing all manner of corruption in big-time college basketball that this is the result of "systematic failures." He's right. But it goes further than that: Not failures within the system, but a failure of the system itself.

This is where I'd like to throw in a handful of nice things that must be said about the NCAA. The NCAA is an easy punching bag for those who want to turn a complex and nuanced issue into a simple question of greed and hypocrisy. This isn't as simple as that, though. The NCAA has moved toward incremental change in recent years to give more equity to the student-athletes. Things like allowing schools to give athletes full cost of attendance instead of just scholarships and room and board; banishing some of the more inane rules, like the "cream cheese rule," from the NCAA rule book; allowing schools to purchase insurance for elite players who are risking injury and jeopardizing their professional athletic futures while playing amateur sports; permitting players to test the NBA draft waters and then return to college if they don't sign with an agent; and allowing schools to pay for plane tickets for a recruits' parents during an official visit. These are small but important changes, and indicate the NCAA is moving toward valuing the student-athletes over the institution.

It should also be noted that most of the ink that's spilled over the inequities of the NCAA has to do with the two primary revenue sports, football and men's basketball, and specifically the small percentage of elite, professional-bound players within those two revenue sports. The vast majority of student-athletes under the NCAA's umbrella are never going to get paid to professionally play their sport. Nearly half a million college students at more than 1,200 colleges and universities of all sizes compete in 90 different men's, women's and coed sports under the NCAA's umbrella. For most of them, this is a good deal: Continue their athletic careers (which often are grueling in terms of hours and physical toll), attend college on scholarships, then move on with life.

But the reason this conversation ends up being mostly about men's basketball players? That's because the vast majority of the NCAA's revenue comes from the NCAA tournament. The players who participate in that tournament -- who generate that revenue -- see barely a fraction of that money.

In the wake of the FBI announcing its indictments of 10 figures in and around college basketball back in September, Emmert announced the formation of a commission on college basketball, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The commission is tasked with making "substantive changes to the way we operate, and do so quickly." Predictably, people maligned the formation of the commission: The fact that it didn't include any active college coaches, the stereotype that academic commissions talk but don't act, the feeling that the NCAA's existence is based on the ideal of amateurism and therefore this commission will be committed to incremental changes, not a wholesale rethinking of its philosophy.

But don't discount that this current scandal is an existential question for the modern-day NCAA, and that the NCAA knows incremental change won't suffice here. That Rice was chosen to chair the commission should indicate this commission isn't just looking to fix a cream cheese rule or two.

The NCAA certainly didn't want the prospect of federal criminal trials to cast a years-long shadow over its most lucrative sport. But here we are. What the NCAA needs now is its own Scopes Trial for the future of amateurism. Debates on the morality of amateurism have been prominent since Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch published his piece about injustice and inequity in the NCAA, "The Shame of College Sports," in The Atlantic back in 2011. The fixes must be wholesale, and the debate must be public.

And I don't think that the NCAA will necessarily be destroyed through a public reassessment of its core values. Indeed, amateurism going on trial is essential to the NCAA's survival.

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