CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Arguably the most powerful voice in college athletics spoke out eagerly and deliberately Tuesday in support of college athletes' rights to be paid for their athletic ability -- and marketability.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who's begun his 40th season at helm of the most prominent program in the sport, opined amid a throng of media for nearly 10 minutes on the state of college athletics and admitted the NCAA is a "decade or two" late to affecting change when it comes to name, image and likeness empowerment for college players.
The Hall of Famer also seeks widespread updates to the entire collegiate athletic system. Krzyzewski called college sports' collective bureaucracy -- its athletic directors, conference commissioners, coaches and of course the NCAA that oversees all of them -- essentially an idle, head-in-the-sand, reactionary group on this topic and others. The time for brushing it aside is gone. Forever.
"We need to stay current with what's happening," Krzyzewski said. "I'm glad it () was passed, because it pushes the envelope a little, it pushes the issue. But I don't want to answer just for that. I'd like to see, 'OK, let's take a look at all the things that need to be done. Will we do them? How can we do them?' I don't have the answer. But I'd like to have a bunch of people get together over a period of time and play catch-up with what we probably should have been doing more of a decade or two ago."
Many coaches at ACC Media Day spoke in generalities, but mostly in soft favor, of modernizing NCAA legislation to allow for more financial opportunities for college players. No one claimed to have answers, let alone broad proposals. Still, it was the 72-year-old (who just last season coached maybe the most marketable college basketball player of all time) who was the most outspoken and refreshingly longwinded on a subject that ACC Commissioner John Swofford told me is "probably the biggest issue on the table in intercollegiate athletics right now."
Krzyzewski's become one of the richest men in college sports thanks to the talent he's brought to Durham, North Carolina, over the course of four decades. That talent has helped build a behemoth in men's basketball. Few professional teams are on national television as much in a given season as Duke men's hoops. Given all that Krzyzewski has given to the game, and all that it's given back to him, it would be outrageous and hypocritical for him to be opposed to more player empowerment. Duke's more responsible for getting college basketball to where it is in 2019 than any other school.
Krzyzewski cut into the heart of the issue, which is as much about paying college athletes as it is the long-term viability of college basketball's popularity. He spoke to the growth of the G League, the competing interests against college basketball, and in doing so, echoed a point a few coaches have made in private in recent months: College basketball is at a risk of getting endlessly elbowed by any and every professional basketball league, to the point where its talent pool will dilute to levels never seen before.
"Don't be shocked 4-5 years from now if this goes in where there's G League on TV," Krzyzewski said. "And maybe our collegiate product is being challenged, not just by the NBA but by -- where are these kids going to be marketed and developed? We need to not have our head in the sand. We've had our head in the sand a lot for college. Again, I think we're taking much better care of our kids now than ever before. We have made advancements. But in this type of forward thinking, we're not good game planners for the future...we're very much reactionary. We're reactionary to this bill. We're reactionary -- we are not, we don't set the pace, you know? We need to learn how to do that. We need to try to catch up and then look into the future and then work with partners in the game, in figuring this thing out. We feel like we're an isolationist country, that it's never going to affect us. All this stuff is good that's happening. And then what we do with it, I don't have that answer.
"But the fact that it's all happening I think is right. It was going to come. It was going to come. I just hope we react accordingly. I wonder who we are. In other words, you know who you're talking to the NBA. We really don't know who we're talking to for college basketball. I think that's one of the problems. I think that has to change, where we have a commissioner or whatever you want to call it, where you have a group that looks at what's happening, that can meet and develop relationships with the other entities. That's how progress is made. I'm really happy that all this has happened."
That was the most important thing Krzyzewski said Tuesday. His opinion on this isn't necessarily new, but it is more descriptive, pointed and urgent than he's ever been before on the topic.
And, of course, more people than ever are listening.
One wonders if Mark Emmert is yet among them.
The president of the NCAA has continued to parrot his organization's longstanding and increasingly harangued model of amateurism, effectively restricting the would-be market value (whatever that is or isn't worth is beside the point) of college athletes. In a recent interview with the Indianapolis Star, Emmert tried to fidget into affording some sort of name, image and likeness allowability in the future, but made it clear that whatever said what would be permitted would still categorically fall well short of what California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law and will go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
"This is just a new form of professionalism and a different way of converting students into employees," Emmert told the Star. "(They may be) paid in a fashion different than a paycheck, but that doesn't make them not paid."
Emmert seems concerned with anachronisms, the ways of 1960s college sports, as he tries to shoo away a future that should have arrived long ago, before he ever took office as grand poo-bah of the NCAA.
Krzyzewski spoke to that and a lot more on Tuesday, his words no doubt beaming straight to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis and landing loudly in the ears of university presidents across the country.
"Our sport needs to be reorganized," he said. "It's the only one that's the billion-dollar industry that affects the NCAA. Obviously college football is also that, but it doesn't affect the NCAA. It affects conferences. It's a huge Rubik's Cube right now, but it's worth solving for the kids playing now and the kids who will play in the future."
, plenty of those states' legislators already vocalizing their intention to activate state laws as early as 2020. Krzyzewski said he expects those states to pass legislation similar to California's by April.
"I hear this 'collegiate model' and what is it and what are the universities willing to stick to for that, or are they going to be open to what these kids are open to right now," Krzyzewski said. "It's a really important time for our sport, these next few years. So anyone who just says they oppose it or are for it, let's be all in support of change and make it as productive as possible and look at it as something we could then add to -- it's not like an instance fix. It's an amazingly complex time, for men's college basketball, especially."
The concerns and critiques didn't stop there. Krzyzewski put some onus on himself and his fellow coaches, collectively, with the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Coach K referred to that organization, with a membership well north of 4,000, as weak on connectivity and message, laying blame at the feet of the NABC for not looking out for the well-being of the players.
His words come at an interesting time in the context of what this issue is barreling toward. We are a little more than two weeks away from a huge moment for the NCAA and college athletics: the formal proposal from an NCAA working group to the Board of Governors about what next steps the NCAA can and should take. From there, state and federal legislators are likely to react based on what the NCAA is or isn't willing to do.
The chorus is swelling from those who back college athletes -- a group who for decades has had essentially almost no voice in this, as Krzyzewski reminded anyone who would listen on Tuesday -- when it comes to NIL rights.
"Mike's opinions are always thoughtful and are highly respected and justifiably so, and so when Mike speaks about basketball matters, people listen -- and they should listen," Swofford said. "I think there's some space in there where we need to do our best collectively to be progressive in our thinking and continue to modernize the collegiate model without undoing the amateur aspect of it and keeping it tethered to education. If there's a way to find space within all that with name, image and likeness that helps our athletes, then we need to find it. The only way you can find it is to be open-minded about it and pursue it."
With a push from his conference's most esteemed coach, Swofford went a little further than other power-conference commissioners have been willing to say in recent weeks. He also said he's had informal conversations with those who are on the working group and is hoping for productive step forward.
"It's such a volatile and public issue at this point," Swofford said. "I don't think any part of it is going to be particularly quiet for very long, until we come to some resolutions."
The din increased Tuesday, the latest and really the largest reminder that many college coaches are on the sides of the players and plenty of politicians. So when a man who helped build Duke, the ACC and men's college basketball into the machine it is today speaks so clearly in favor of NIL rights, it puts all the more onus on the NCAA. It drops a heavy stone on the nape of Emmert. It puts conference commissioners and presidents of universities across the country on notice to stir and step into the present -- to not just ethically attempt to do the proper thing, but to make sure it happens.
If Krzyzewski's to be believed, anything short of full-measure modernization will lead to a more fractured system and more splintered sport -- the damage potentially permanent and college basketball all the worse off because of it.