Last Fall when news broke of the FBI investigation of “criminality” in the college basketball recruiting world, the NCAA created an independent commission to be headed by former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to come up with recommendations for reform. Yesterday, that report and those recommendations hit the street. Not surprisingly, the recommendations are a mixed bag; the problem is that too many of the recommendations cannot be implemented by the NCAA even if every person at every member institution favored them.
Before I dive into the recommendations themselves, let me reiterate my position that I do not share the FBI’s assertion that there were criminal acts uncovered by their investigation. There were clear and blatant violations of NCAA recruiting and eligibility rules in what the FBI found, but to my mind that is not equivalent to criminality.
I was not surprised in the least to learn that the Commission thinks that the one-and-done rule is no good. My guess is that one-and-done enjoys the same favorable ratings among basketball fans as does cannibalism; it takes a while to find someone who likes it and is willing to stand up and say that they do. I hate the one-and-done situation but there are two things related to the current report that bother me:
- Secretary Rice mentioned in remarks yesterday that recruiting shenanigans increased after the creation of the one-and-done situation about 12 years ago. I agree that we have seen more evidence of and more details surrounding the seamy side of recruiting in recent years, but I would need to see some proof that the situation got worse. As far back as the glory days of UCLA basketball under John Wooden, there were some “irregularities” surrounding some of the athletes who played there.
- The NCAA did not create the one-and-done situation; the NBA and the NBPA did. The NCAA can no more eliminate one-and-done than it can summon up the Tooth Fairy and use her to fund any of the other recommendations made here. Until and unless the NBA and the NBPA alter their existing Collective Bargaining Agreement, one-and-done is here to stay. The good news is that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver seems to want to get rid of that CBA provision, but that still does not put any authority or power in the hands of the NCAA.
There is another problem with using one-and-done as a punching bag. While it may feel good and it may get heads nodding in agreement, it is not the thread that when pulled will unravel the entire mess. One of the central figures in the FBI investigation – Christian Dawkins – allegedly funneled money to high school recruits AND to upperclassmen. By definition, upperclassmen are not “one-and-doners”. The problems here are not simple nor are they easily localized.
A key element here is that top-shelf recruits have different values to different people and institutions. For college administrators and educators, they have one value; for coaches they have a different value; for boosters yet another value and for apparel companies one more value. That environment creates a “black market” where shady characters can effect transfers of value among the different institutions. In such a situation, the deal goes under the table – or as an uncle of mine used to say, the money goes “down south”.
There are some good ideas offered up. They are easier said than done, but the NCAA ought to make a serious effort to make them happen:
- The Commission says that schools who are caught cheating should get sanctions that last 5 years and that they would not share in any of the revenues generated in those 5 years. The NCAA’s “broadcast partners” are not going to be happy to learn that a school or two guaranteed to draw big ratings will be on the sidelines for March Madness for the next 5 years. Does the NCAA have the fortitude to stand up to that? I would like to think so, but …
- The Commission suggests banning coaches for life if they are found guilty of major violations. This resonates with folks who believe in retribution and who think that all stories should end with everyone living happily ever after. The problem here is the meaning of “found guilty”. By whom? In what tribunal? To what standard of proof? This one could take a while – – maybe even a lifetime.
- The Commission recommends that players be allowed to declare for the NBA Draft and to return to college as eligible players if they are not selected in the NBA Draft. That makes a lot of sense – except to the coaches and assistant coaches who are doing the recruiting. For them, this change will mean that they do not know if a player who declared will be back the next season until after the NBA Draft in June. Frankly, I think that is a level of discomfort and inconvenience that coaches can tolerate given the annual salaries they are pulling down.
There are other recommendations from the Commission that are akin to the one about eliminating the one-and-done situation; they sound great, but one has to wonder how the NCAA is going to pull them off.
- The Commission wants the NCAA, the NBA and US Basketball to wrest control of “summer basketball camps” from the AAU and make things pure. First, the NCAA, the NBA and US Basketball would be an unholy alliance; second, this is going to cost a lot of money and it will provide little if any benefit to either the NBA or US Basketball; ergo … The reality is that the shoe/apparel companies fund the AAU summer camps and as long as they choose to do that, the AAU summer camps will go forward.
- The Commission also recommends that the NCAA demand more transparency and accountability from the shoe/apparel companies regarding their expenditures of promotional funds. Secretary Rice said that CEOs and Chairmen of the Board for public companies ought to be on top of how such funds are dispersed. That sounds so good and so simple that it makes me tingle. I am afraid however that the two operative words here are “Not” and “Happening”…
- The Commission recommends that players be allowed to deal with agents without losing their eligibility. If the NCAA could find ways to keep that process from spinning out of control that would be a good idea. Then again, regulating what agents may and may not do or provide for regarding athletes seems like rewriting the recruiting rules which clearly have not worked all that well or the FBI would not be investigating.
The Commission suggested that the NCAA expand its Board of Governors to include outside/independent members who would be voting members of the Board. I like the idea but wonder just how “independent” a new member might be given that he/she would be nominated and vetted by the NCAA and its Board of Governors before taking a seat. I know that is a cynical stance and I need to stifle it because putting a few “outsiders” on the inside is a step in the right direction. It may not be perfect, but it is better than what exists today. After all, this works for public corporations and non-profits…
The Commission suggested that the NCAA create a robust and independent investigative and adjudicative entity to do serious enforcement of whatever rules are on the books. Again, I wonder about the “independence” of such an entity if it ever were to come to pass given that its budget would have to come from the NCAA itself. Also, without the ability to compel “testimony”, the robustness of such an entity is open to question.
The Commission recommended – and I think this is a great idea – that the schools create a fund that would guarantee any athlete who left school to turn pro after two or more years and who was a student in good standing at the time of his departure scholarship status to return to school and finish his degree. Given the potential costs involved here, I doubt there will be a lot of schools rushing forward to make this happen, but it is a great idea.
Let me make a suggestion of my own here that departs from what the Commission recommended and would put a dent in the one-and-done world. It will not cure the problem, but it might change some of the recruiting dynamics. For me to be transparent about this, let me acknowledge that I have cribbed most of this idea from remarks made by Coach Bob Knight about 30 years ago. Do not confuse the message here with the messenger.
- Each school should have a fixed number of scholarships that they can issue at any given time. They are all full scholarships; none of them can be sliced and diced and distributed to more than one player.
- Once signed onto, that scholarship sticks to that player for 5 years – or fewer than 5 years if the player graduates from that college before the 5 years have expired. If the player quits the team, he keeps the scholarship and the team cannot issue it to another player. If he transfers and gets a scholarship from another school, he then has two scholarships stuck to him from two different institutions.
- A player loses all eligibility if he transfers more than once.
A school that recruits a class consisting of 4 or 5 “one-and-done players” is going to be hamstrung when they leave because they will be down 4 or 5 scholarships for the next 4 years until the 5-year expiration date allows them to re-issue the scholarship. That will possibly decrease demand for top players – or at least disperse them among the colleges. It is not a perfect solution, but it is as good an idea as many of the Commission’s suggestions.
The biggest issue that the Commission failed to address is the hallowed NCAA concept of the “student-athlete”. There may indeed have been a time in the idyllic past when people went to college to earn a degree and who also decided to play basketball for the school at the same time. That may still happen in some corners of today’s game but do not fall for the rhapsodic pronouncements of the NCAA on this subject. College basketball players are only amateurs because the NCAA demands that they appear to be so, and it is that demand that creates the black market that led to the need for this Commission in the first place. I have no insight into any deliberations or any of the dynamics of the Commission; nevertheless, the fact that Mark Emmert – the head honcho of the NCAA – was a member of the Commission that reported out yesterday might lead one to wonder if his presence assured that “amateurism reform” was not part of the final recommendations.
Overall, the Commission did a good job. They had a monumental task. In the 12 Labors of Hercules, he was tasked to clean out the stables of King Augeus – a rich man with lots of cattle and livestock – in a single day. The Commission had a huge mess on its hands and only about 6 months to come up with recommendations. Hercules solved his problem by diverting the water from two rivers through the stables to clean them up. The Commission did not have access to enough river water here.
To me, the things that could have the largest and most far reaching effects on the recruiting process are these:
- Create and fund the independent investigative and adjudicative body recommended by the Commission. The members would have to accede to authorities granted to those bodies or suffer sanctions from the NCAA directly.
- Increase the penalties for getting caught cheating. Maybe lifetime bans need to be reserved for those who behave like Dr. Larry Nassar or Jerry Sandusky or Dave Bliss but keeping a coach or an assistant off the coaching carousel for 10 years might just keep folks a bit more honest.
The NCAA takes in almost a billion dollars a year in television rights fees from college basketball. That is not chump change; that is real money. [Aside: The amount of money here puts the lie to the notion that the players are “amateurs” and that college basketball is anything but a business enterprise for the NCAA.] The independent investigative and adjudicative body will not come into existence cheaply nor will it ever be self-sustaining financially. Whether the NCAA members step up to this “cost of doing business” will be a significant indicator of their seriousness in trying to clean up this mess.
This story is not over. Stay tuned for further developments …
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………