The 2016 state of college basketball: Michigan's 'jail food' to paying players
Tournament protection and player compensation might go hand in hand
WASHINGTON -- Trey Burke was college basketball's national player of the year as a sophomore in 2013 while leading Michigan to the NCAA Tournament championship game. Long before that point, Burke said, he had "checked out."
Burke, who played before cost of attendance stipends, described how he wouldn't eat breakfast because he had no money and the dorm food was "disgusting, you think it's jail food." He knew his NBA payday was coming soon. He was also playing on the biggest stage of a multibillion-dollar industry where players continue to question if they're being compensated properly with a scholarship.
"As an athlete, when you're kind of checked out, you already have in your mind that you're an NBA player, but you're in college," said Burke, who now plays for the Washington Wizards. "Some guys just don't go to class. ... [Michigan] checked my classes so I knew I had to go to class. Long story short, I felt like personally they could have helped me structure what I was going into, as far as finances, as far as budgeting. I didn't know anything about any of those things. All I knew was basketball."
In fairness, John Beilein told MLive.com that Burke told him he exaggerated some comments to "help other student-athletes." Burke also claims his comments about dorm food were taken out of context.
My statements were clearly taken out of context when referring to some of the dorm food bac at UM! That state always will be like home!— Trey Burke (@TreyBurke) October 25, 2016
It's hard to imagine how "jail food" can be taken out of context, and one of the Knight Commission members did respond in surprise: "At Michigan?" Nevertheless, a panel of experts, including Burke, debated various aspects about the state of college basketball this week in Washington during an interesting discussion held by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The 90-minute talk essentially boiled down to this: What has college basketball become?
It is a sport where some believe players are being overscheduled like professionals, while others say this is what players want.
It is players increasingly transferring at higher rates -- just as they do in high school as the recruiting process starts earlier -- and raising concerns about a systemic epidemic.
It is agents paying players or their families for access to potentially represent them.
It is more benefits by colleges to players -- such as cost of attendance stipends and more nutritional meals -- yet increased pushback from players to gain a slice of the financial pie.
It is Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes showing up on ESPN's College GameDay holding a sign saying he's a broke college student. Hayes, who is suing the NCAA to allow players to be paid, said he made this demonstration to help future players get compensated in major college sports.
It is two-thirds of Division I relying much more on NCAA Tournament revenue than the Power Five schools, who live off football dollars just fine. The Power Five conference revenue was $570 million in 2005; it's projected to be $2.8 billion by 2020, according to the Knight Commission.
"The big revenue source didn't just occur yesterday," Atlantic-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. "This has been an evolution over decades that our current student-athletes just happen to see the gigantic numbers right now. We have to find a middle ground [on whether the NCAA should allow players to be paid for use of their own names, images and likenesses], but I don't think we can ignore it. I don't think we can say the Supreme Court is not going to hear the [Ed O'Bannon] case so we don't need to address it. That would be a misstep, I think, on the part of presidents, administrators and commissioners."
What has college basketball become? These are some of the talking points.
Shane Battier: College hoops is a 24/7 job
Shane Battier, the 2001 national player of the year at Duke, said players are now incredibly over-scheduled in a sport where voluntary work really means there's no choice.
"I've been out of the college game for almost 15 years," Battier said. "When I go back and talk to my friends and coaches, I'm amazed at the schedule of the college basketball player. It has literally become a 24/7 job and it makes me sad. ... I think we're doing a huge disservice to our athletes, especially our basketball players, by creating almost a professional college basketball environment."
Battier said college coaches tell him they're too scared to give players much leeway because they'll have to rescue them from mistakes. "Well, isn't that what college is all about?" Battier said. "Making those mistakes, staying up way too late, doing a paper at 3 in the morning. Those are the lessons that shape you into a successful member of our society."
Old Dominion coach Jeff Jones, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said most of the over-scheduling concerns are related to study hall, tutors, athlete welfare and community service, not basketball. Jones noted that a recent NCAA survey showed that compared to other college athletes, far fewer men's basketball players believe they're spending too much time on their sport.
"You don't know what you have until you have it," Battier said. "Because there's no time, students don't know what they would do if they had that time."
David Robinson: Education means less to players
Hall of Famer and former Navy star David Robinson, a new Knight Commission member, said so many players come to college without focusing on their education.
"The value of the education means nothing when you're telling them, 'We're spending $150,000 a year on me as a student,'" Robinson said. "A lot of these kids are just waiting for the opportunity to get out, yet we know college is potentially a phenomenal opportunity. The kids should have options. It becomes a problem when you put them in a system where they have to follow a certain route and then all of a sudden it looks like everybody is in collusion. They think, 'We're all planning against you and we're all making money and we're going to put you in a box because it really helps us.'
"I have a problem that you're going to limit the kid's opportunity to generate revenue off his likeness. He's a compelling person. He may never have that value again. There's a lot of revenue being generated. If a kid has the opportunity to generate some revenue outside of just playing for that team, I have a hard time that you're going to limit that opportunity."
Battier said the main reason minority students don't get a degree is they fail to understand the importance of what it means.
"It's an inspiration problem. It's not a logistics problem," he said. "Our minority [graduation] numbers, especially in basketball, are not great."
Battier: Current players need to meet alumni
Battier used to believe every revenue athlete should receive a check. He now thinks colleges are missing an opportunity to add value to scholarships by creating at no cost a structure for current players to interact with alumni. The idea is to open doors and inspire players for the future.
Long after college, Battier said, he became exposed to business opportunities because of the clout he had as a prominent Duke player. He believes that needs to happen for active college players.
"Look, I'm very lucky and I know I can call any alumni in any corner of the world and get a Starbucks [meeting] with them," said Battier, who runs a foundation and is a consultant for sports analytics technology. "What you realize as an athlete is that your power is in the jersey. The second you take off that jersey, you become an ex-player. It's funny how much longer it takes for people to call you back when you're an ex-athlete."
Battier suggests every university create what he calls "Jock Ec," an economics class specifically for athletes that deals with real-world issues. The class could touch on finances, accounting and marketing, and include guest speakers whose talks might inspire a player to pursue a career they never would have known about on their own.
Battier said the fear of "$100 handshakes" with alumni prevents more connections from getting made while players are in school. "But let's be honest: There's $100 handshakes happening right now anyway."
Robinson, the former San Antonio Spurs star, said colleges have a responsibility to help players take advantage of their access to an education. "I don't think a lot of kids are either being counseled or steered to take advantage of everything that the university has on the table. If we did a better job of that, this whole idea of paying students would be a lot less of an issue."
NBA agent: Cheating is 'rampant' by paying players
The reality is players do have value beyond their scholarship or under-the-table payments wouldn't occur. Agents increasingly provide gifts and money to players, families and influencers, despite restrictions by the NCAA, National Basketball Players Association and state laws, said agent Jim Tanner, president of Tandem Sports & Entertainment.
"The practice of cheating is rampant and the practice of violating such prohibitions is absolutely the norm and not the exception," said Tanner, who has represented Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Ray Allen, Jeremy Lin and Battier. "Everyone knows it's going on. It's truly a broken system with zero enforcement. I've had so many people tell me, 'You're the only agency that doesn't pay players.' I used to take that as a point of pride, but now honestly, it just sickens me because I hear it so much."
Over the past 20 years, the most influential person in helping a player decide what agent to pick shifted from the college coach to the AAU coach and now to the parents, Tanner said.
"You'll see a lot of times where parents are essentially selling kids without the kids' knowledge," Tanner said. "They'll sell meetings with the kids or sell access or they expect payment in order to represent their sons. It's almost a badge of honor for the parents."
Knight Commission member Len Elmore, a former Maryland basketball player, said he left the agent business because he was "not going to compete to get kids who were being given the wrong impressions of their talent, telling them what they want to hear. That's even worse now."
NBA agent: Later draft deadline helped, but more is needed
Tanner regrets what the NBA Draft process has become, but realizes it's not changing right now. "It's really about finding lightning in a bottle so they look for the younger guys and the older guys are discounted."
The NCAA extended the deadline to late May for when underclassmen can withdraw from the NBA Draft and still retain college eligibility. In the first year, 58 players withdrew and 59 stayed in the draft. Of the 59 that remained, a record 30 underclassmen went undrafted. The previous record was 17, and the average over the previous 10 years was 13.5.
Tanner said the later NCAA date presumably benefitted players who stayed in school, and one year is too small a sample size to say the rule failed. Tanner thinks the NCAA withdrawal date should be in mid-June to give players as much feedback as possible. He also believes NCAA rules that require a player to pay for his workouts and fair-market value for an adviser unintentionally push players to the NBA because they can't afford the costs.
"There needs to be great clarity on the roles of advisers," Tanner said. "If these advisers aren't allowed [by the NCAA] to contact NBA teams on a players' behalf, aren't allowed to assist in arranging workouts, or to market players to NBA teams, what function do they really serve?"
Old Dominion coach: Transfers are the biggest problem
There are more than 700 names on ESPN's list of college basketball transfers for 2016-17. McGlade, the A-10 commissioner, said basketball transfers are occurring at "an alarming rate" of 43 percent and it's a "systemic" issue. Jones described transfers as the biggest problem for the sport.
"Something needs to be done," Jones said. "But when you look at the young men in high school and you see this model of going to two or three different high schools, that precedent has already kind of seeped in."
Left unspoken in the discussion about transfers: They're leaving to try to get more playing time. In other words, they're seeking what they think is a better opportunity during a finite amount of time in college. Coaches seek better opportunities by changing jobs while spending longer periods of time in college basketball than players.
Jones said the recruiting process has become so accelerated that schools are almost "forced" to recruit high school freshmen and sophomores. The accelerated pace can't help recruits and coaches find the right match.
"You've got literally no idea what they're going to do from an academic standpoint," Jones said. "You're just hoping and keeping your fingers crossed. ... The verbal offers of scholarships -- kids just want them. It doesn't really mean anything. A parent recently said to one of our assistants, 'When are you going to offer?' We said, 'If we do it, are you going to commit?' They just want the offer. It happens so early. When we talk about that ego system, I think there's a lot of it that's kind of out of whack."
Atlantic 10 commissioner: Protect the NCAA Tournament
There's irony whenever concerns arise about the state of college basketball. In many ways, whatever gets deemed good or bad about the game is simply a byproduct of the culture colleges and coaches created by accepting more and more money from shoe companies and television networks. None of this happens in a vacuum.
As the money increased -- the NCAA Tournament TV deal got extended for $8.8 billion through 2032 -- why wouldn't players want a slice? Why wouldn't the NCAA Tournament become the biggest (and virtually only) revenue source for the NCAA and many Division I universities? Why wouldn't schools chase access to March Madness at all costs given the financial rewards and exposure associated with participation?
Nearly 40 percent of the annual $550 million payout for March Madness is awarded to conferences based on the tournament success of teams. On Thursday, the NCAA approved a proposal that makes the academic performance of athletes in all sports a factor in NCAA Tournament revenue distribution for the first time.
This new academic-based distribution fund will debut in 2019-20 with $12.7 million and grow to about $105.4 million in 2024-25, according to USA Today. This fund will get 75 percent of the annual TV rights fee increases during the first six years of the new contract. The Knight Commission has pushed this idea for years.
Schools could get money from the fund if their overall athletes meet certain criteria points of the NCAA's Academic Progress and Graduation Success Rates, as well as the federal graduation rate. This would be a small way to redistribute some of the wealth and attach academics as a financial carrot for schools.
"There's no argument that relying on a single source of revenue for any business, enterprise or association with an operating budget and the organizational programming as large as the NCAA is, quite frankly, living dangerously," said McGlade, the Atlantic 10 commissioner. "But that's what we do in the NCAA. This dangerous living is precisely why we have to protect the championship, and it's even more important because of the latest renewal of the contract."
McGlade didn't say this, but it wasn't hard to connect the dots of why she mentioned protecting the NCAA Tournament and finding a middle ground for players to benefit off their names, images and likenesses. Protecting the NCAA Tournament means realizing there could be a day when the players decide there's no tip-off because of a boycott.
"There is more of an activist aura nowadays," Battier said. "Of all the models I've heard, the Olympic model [allowing players to get paid from outside sources for use of their name] makes sense. Logistically, would it be practical? I don't know. Look, there's not anybody working for the NCAA who doesn't think they can be doing things better."
Battier said his biggest pet peeve in college basketball occurs in the waning seconds of a game when a coach calls timeout to devise an "intricate" play. In reality, Battier said, the play is to give the ball to the best player and get out of the way, but coaches want to show their value so they draw up plays.
"That gets extended into every area of a coach's life on campus," Battier said. "So often, coaches will put their players through almost meaningless work because it shows my value that I'm coaching these guys. I'm making them better and that leads to the overscheduling."
Trey Burke: Returning to college is a goal
Burke, the former Michigan star, sounds like he second-guesses not learning more about life after basketball. While he didn't explicitly say it, there's undoubtedly personal responsibility attached to his course in life.
Burke said he came to Michigan without a real academic background -- "My parents brought me up you have to go to school, but I didn't really have a real plan coming to college" -- and had the mindset of going straight to the NBA. If salaries were higher in the NBDL, the NBA's developmental league, Burke said that "sadly" some high school players would go there instead of college. NBDL salaries this year are $26,000 and $19,500.
Today, Burke is a 23-year-old backup point guard for the Wizards who has earned over $7.6 million in his NBA career. In that sense, the exposure he received playing at Michigan, where he was enrolled in the School of Kinesiology, paid off handsomely.
But now, Burke said, he wants to learn how to return to college and "really go after that goal, something that may not even be necessarily toward basketball." Now, Burke promised, his 2-year-old son will one day learn about the business of sports that he wishes Michigan would have taught.
"I don't feel I was equipped enough going into the [NBA] process, and I feel like [Michigan] could have helped me more with me building a team for what I wanted, rather than an agent coming in telling me all this knowledge and things," Burke said. "They're not really teaching you."
What has college basketball become?
Let's be honest: It's professional basketball attached to education. It's been that way for a while. (Same with college football, for that matter.) The universities, college coaches, AAU influencers, agents, shoe companies and TV networks understood this for decades. Increasingly, the players are more enlightened.
The genie can't be put back in the bottle. Either college basketball evolves or the players will keep changing the game on their own.
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