The Commission on College Basketball can’t fix the sport if it refuses to address the central issue
NCAA President Mark Emmert promised 'transformational changes' but the commission did not deliver
A former Secretary of State stood at the lectern early Wednesday morning and, line by line, read six months of work while announcing recommendations from the Commission on College Basketball that she heads. At one point, about halfway through, Condoleezza Rice turned her attention to agents and explained why she believes student-athletes should be allowed to "engage" with them going forward.
"If NCAA rules do not allow them to receive that advice openly," Rice said, "they will receive it illicitly."
That's logical and undeniable.
But you can easily, and accurately, say the exact same thing about money. Which is why these recommendations, which are expected to soon be adopted by the NCAA, won't do much to actually eliminate the issues college basketball has forever faced.
"What was the point of that?" one coach asked me not long after Rice closed her remarks in Indianapolis. My response to him: The point was to create the perception, at least among the uninformed, that the NCAA is serious about cleaning up its self-described mess. But nobody with a brain is buying it.
And, yes, the buying of players will continue just like always.
To be clear, there are some fine ideas among the Commission on College Basketball's recommendations -- like eliminating the one-and-done rule, having independent investigations into allegations of cheating and allowing players who enter the NBA Draft to return to college and play, if they want, provided they go unselected. But it's almost like the Commission on College Basketball forgot why the Commission on College Basketball was created in the first place. So let me remind it: The Commission on College Basketball was created in response to an FBI investigation that uncovered some folks were illegally paying other folks to secure players in some form. And yet the Commission on College Basketball's recommendations, as expected, do little, if not nothing, to address that central issue.
Think about it.
Rick Pitino and most of his staff were fired at Louisville because Adidas allegedly arranged a six-figure payment to the family of a five-star prospect in exchange for his enrollment. Auburn's Chuck Person, USC's Tony Bland and Oklahoma State's Lamont Evans were all fired because they allegedly accepted money to funnel prospects to financial advisers. And Arizona's Book Richardson was fired because he allegedly paid a recruit. Which means literally every employee of a Division I university who has been fired as a result of this ongoing FBI investigation that sparked the Commission on College Basketball was fired because of some kind of improper payment. That's a fact. But the Commission on College Basketball did nothing to eliminate the black market that leads to improper payments. So the improper payments will undoubtedly continue. And, no, the recommendation of harsher penalties for Level I violations won't do much to deter them because the reward of cheating will still outweigh the risk, same as it ever was.
The real solution is obvious.
The only way to actually "clean up" college basketball, as I've written many times, is to loosen the rules drastically and do away with amateurism. In fact, at this point, it's easier to explain why by simply lifting my thoughts from a previous column. So I'll just do that now and-- that what the NCAA should do is eliminate the black market that's forever existed by allowing student-athletes to secure representation in whatever form and accept fair-market value in this billion-dollar industry where just about everybody connected to the biggest sports in the biggest conferences are legally getting rich but them.
Want agents to stop paying players illegally?
Then make it legal.
Just change the rules so that any student-athlete can sign a legal and binding agreement with an agent, at which point the agent is free to provide whatever he wants to the student-athlete. Suddenly, just like that, the days of agents and financial advisors working through assistant coaches at places like Auburn and USC would be over because it would be unnecessary. Agents could instead work openly and directly with players and their families just like they do in the entertainment world when teenagers worth millions of dollars emerge.
Now to amateurism.
Again, like I've said and written many times, amateurism might've made sense back when television networks weren't paying billions of dollars for the rights to broadcast college events. Or when fans weren't paying thousands of dollars to attend games. Or when coaches weren't making $8 million a year. Or when the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, often a 19-year-old coming off of one year of college, wasn't guaranteed to sign a two-year contract worth $14.6 million three months after the NCAA Tournament ends.
But those were different days.
In this era of college athletics, the best student-athletes in the prominent sports are worth too much money to too many people. They're worth something to agents who want to represent them. They're worth something to financial advisors who want to handle their money. They're worth something to shoe companies that want the universities with which they have multimillion-dollar business deals to succeed. They're worth something to schools that want to sell season-ticket packages for the most money possible. They're worth something to coaches who want to get contract extensions that set them up for life. They're worth something to boosters who just want, sometimes irrationally, their favorite teams to win big and consistently. And the byproduct of all that is that countless student-athletes every year have actual and real value well above what they're allowed to accept per NCAA rules. Thus, a black market exists where agents, financial advisors, shoe companies, coaches, boosters and others often try to create an advantage by circumventing NCAA rules.
That's how we got here.
So how do we get out of here?
Kill amateurism -- an outdated principle flawed to its core in any system where everybody gets rich except for the competitors, which is something the Olympics figured out a long time ago despite some insisting that allowing Olympic athletes to accept fair-market value would ruin everything. Needless to say, those people were wrong -- evidence being that we still love and watch and root for multimillionaire Lindsey Vonn and multimillionaire Michael Phelps. Nobody cares that they're properly-compensated.
College athletes should be properly-compensated too.
And, obviously, that means different things for different people. So, as with everything else in this country, the NCAA should allow the market to decide exactly who gets what. For example, if Nike wanted to sign Marvin Bagley to a $2 million endorsement deal in exchange for him enrolling at Duke, and Bagley, after entertaining all other offers, wanted to accept it, let him do it. Similarly, if a car dealership in Birmingham wanted to sign Chris Cokley to a $5,000 endorsement deal in exchange for him enrolling at UAB, and Cokley, after entertaining all other offers, wanted to accept it, let him do it. Just let student-athletes -- and I mean all student-athletes, male and female, from football players to volleyball players and everybody in between -- take whatever somebody is willing to give them for whatever reason. Make it legal. Do that and suddenly, literally overnight, everything would be above board. And we'd never again have to wonder why this player went to this school or that player went to that school. It would all be transparent. Some players would get a lot. Some players would get a little. Some players would get nothing more than the scholarship they already get.
In other words, everybody would get what they're worth.
And, yes, I know this would lead to businesses often recruiting for schools of their choosing -- and definitely lead to a situation where, say, Tudor Investments might let it be known that any top-10 point guard, or top-25 running back, who signs with Virginia is promised an endorsement deal of some sort. And that similar deals would emerge all over the country at all levels.
My response: Good!
All that would mean is that student-athletes would be getting whatever the market says they're worth just like Olympians get whatever the market says they're worth. And to those who are yelling, "But that's a system that would lead to the biggest schools with the biggest corporate sponsors and most intense boosters getting most of the best prospects," let me ask: Have you checked the recruiting rankings lately? The biggest schools with the biggest corporate sponsors and most intense boosters already get most of the best prospects. Kentucky already has a recruiting advantage over Western Kentucky. Tennessee already has a recruiting advantage over Middle Tennessee. So this system wouldn't change the order of things within the sport at all. The schools that are good at basketball now would be good then. The schools that are good at football now would be good then. The recruiting rankings and AP polls wouldn't annually look much different.
The same schools would win the championships.
And here's the best part: Everything would be clean!
Because, try to follow me here, you can't break amateurism rules if there are no amateurism rules. Which is why doing away with amateurism is the only actual fix. Anything else was always just going to lead to a mostly pointless press conference.
Which brings us to Wednesday morning.
What happened Wednesday morning is exactly what I, and many others, predicted would happen -- especially after NCAA President Mark Emmert had made it clear multiple times in recent months that freeing college basketball of amateurism wasn't an actual option, which always meant the Commission on College Basketball's task was doomed from the jump. Simply put, you cannot clean up college basketball while refusing to address the central issue of the black market amateurism creates. And that's why I always roll my eyes when somebody working for or with the NCAA insists they'll do whatever they have to do to clean up the sport. Because what cleaning up the sport would actually require them to do is relinquish some power and the control of millions and millions of dollars. And that's just not something greedy people are ever willing to voluntarily do.
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