NCAA Men's basketball championship trophy
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Culture Opinion

Opinion: NCAA commission recommendations miss the forest for the trees

The NCAA basketball trophy. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

There are declarative statements that become linked to a person’s legacy. NCAA President Mark Emmert has several of those comments in his portfolio. Add another to that list.

The dark-cloud problems unearthed by an ongoing FBI inquiry into college basketball’s black-market underbelly elicited a typical response from the NCAA – it formed a committee. The Commission on College Basketball was charged with finding solutions to the issues that became negative headlines for the organization. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was put in charge. At the Final Four in San Antonio nearly a month ago, Emmert responded to those who doubted the substance of the commission’s work.

“Just to be blunt about it, you don’t waste Condoleezza Rice’s time if you’re not serious about it,” he said.

No doubt the commission had serious intentions but the recommendations announced Wednesday at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis indicate that its work over the last seven months was a waste of time.

Rice, like Emmert, had her own “etched in stone” moment during her podium time Wednesday. She said that the goal should not be to turn college basketball into another professional league and that, "We need to put the college back in college basketball."

That 10-word catch phrase might work as a marketing tweet but it was a stump speech statement that rang hollow.

Last September, the FBI dropped the bombshell that shook college basketball. The FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York revealed an investigation into fraud and corruption involving recruiting, apparel companies and agents. Ten individuals were charged, including assistant coaches at Auburn, Oklahoma State, Arizona and USC. The scheme allegedly involved an Adidas rep funneling money to the assistant coaches to high school prospects (or their families) to influence them to attend their school. The goal was to establish relationships that Adidas could then monetize when/if the player reached the NBA.

The 60-page Rice Report says college basketball has "a toxic mix of perverse incentives to cheat” and that "The state of men's college basketball is deeply troubled. The levels of corruption and deception are now at a point that they threaten the very survival of the college game as we know it."

What was written between the lines was what veteran observers have known for years. The NCAA is willfully ignorant of what is causing its problems while blaming others for those problems.

Notre Dame president John Jenkins, a member of the commission, said this Wednesday: "What our commission believes, I think what the NCAA believes, is that the interest in college sport is due to the fact that these are students pursuing degrees."

Yes, yes; of course. CBS and Turner are paying $10.8 billion for NCAA Tournament rights and ESPN is forking over $7.3 billion for the College Football Playoff because of diplomas and grade point averages.

The Rice Report was little more than pearl clutching and hand wringing. Let’s engage in some point/counterpoint discussion.

  • Point: The commission was tasked with the “problem” of the NBA’s age rule that requires players to be 19 before becoming draft-eligible. The NBA rule was implemented over a decade ago. It’s called the “one-and-done” rule because top players spend one year in college to reach the NBA’s age requirement. This past season, players like DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, Trae Young, Collin Sexton and Marvin Bagley III were freshmen who had outstanding seasons before declaring for the NBA Draft.
  • Counterpoint: The NCAA is appealing to the NBA and its players association to either rescind the age requirement or perhaps raise it to 20. The NCAA blaming the one-and-done rule for the corruption that drew the attention of the FBI shows the college organization’s ivory tower disconnect with reality. The modern-day recruiting black market was flourishing years before the NBA enforced the rule.
  • Point: The commission hinted that if the NBA doesn’t change its rules, the NCAA might return to freshmen being ineligible or penalize schools by freezing scholarships if players leave early.
  • Counterpoints: The freshmen one-and-dones this season all had unique skill sets that enhanced their teams and the excitement of the college game. Barring them from playing as freshmen is tone deaf. Plus, putting scholarship restrictions on schools who lose players early does nothing but take away opportunities from those who aren’t immediate NBA prospects.
  • Point: The commission was correct in its criticism of the NCAA’s toothless enforcement process and recommended forming an “independent investigative and adjudicative arm.” The FBI has used undercover agents, wiretaps, informants and the threat of jail time to build its corruption case over the last three years. The NCAA enforcement staff lacks manpower and subpoena power. Also, the commission recommended stiffer penalties for coaches who break the rules.
  • Counterpoints: Enforcing those rules with the current system is like catching smoke. Plus, creating an “independent investigative and adjudicative arm” would cost tens of millions of dollars and would be useless if it had no power to legally discover evidence and force on-the-record testimony.
  • Point: Summer basketball – aka AAU ball – is the nexus for high school prospects, agents, apparel companies and college coaches. All those factions are a petri dish for deal making. Nike, for instance, sponsors its own circuit for high school prospects. The commission recommended the NCAA should run its own recruiting events.
  • Counterpoints: To tame what has turned into the Wild West, the NCAA would be making (another) money grab in taking over the recruiting circuits. Plus, Pandora’s Box has been open for 20 years; closing it and restricting/eliminating summer events – some of which are legitimate that benefit players and college coaches – would no doubt engender lawsuits against the NCAA.
  • Point: Nike and Under Armour are engaged in an apparel war (which makes Adidas’ involvement in the FBI case even more ironic). A strategy in the battle has been to sign schools to long-term, multimillion dollar deals to wear apparel with the company logo. Again, this is nothing new; 40 years ago Nike rep Sonny Vaccaro inked coaches like Jerry Tarkanian to have his  players wear the brand. The Rice Report called for greater financial transparency regarding the apparel company deals.
  • Counterpoint: Schools with lucrative apparel deals consider those contracts to be in the “Nunya File” – as in “nunya” business. Two years ago, the NCAA – yes, the NCAA –  eliminated a rule that required schools be transparent with how much of their apparel money was siphoned to coaches. The rule came from the Big 12 Conference and was pushed by the University of Texas. In 2015, UT signed a 15-year deal for $250 million – the current high bar in terms of school/apparel deals.

Here is an appropriate segue to the crux of the NCAA’s lengthy list of woes: Follow the money. Instead of victim blaming, the NCAA could solve many of its problems by abandoning its white-knuckle grip on the “amateur model.” And that doesn’t mean “paying players.” It means giving players in football and men’s basketball – the sports that fuel the College Sports Industrial Complex – the right to profit from their name/image/likeness.  

The NCAA and many of its top conferences are paying millions in legal fees defending the “NIL” issue in numerous lawsuits; so far, the legal arguments have been won by the plaintiffs. The amateur model can’t be defended in the real world. The Rice Report, electing to punt on first down, referenced the court cases as a reason not to weigh in on the NIL issue.

Of course, the NCAA is a “non-profit” organization that makes billions from its men’s basketball tournament and distributes much of that to member schools. The NCAA has cleverly benefited from capitalism while engaging in socialism.

The one-track mind set of those tasked with and being paid millions to lead college sports was exposed Tuesday. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News reported that the National Association of Basketball coaches distributed an email to its members. Regarding the Rice Report, the message included talking points plus the following marching order: “In short, it is imperative that the Commission’s recommendations be met with unequivocal support from each of us.”

So much for robust discussion and debate.

Most expect that the recommendations from the Rice Report will be fast tracked and implemented by August. The NCAA, in its knee-jerk haste to “do something” is basically running into a burning building with a fire hose spraying jet fuel.  

The 14-member commission was flawed from the start. While there were some impressive names – ex-players David Robinson and Grant Hill, former coaches Mike Montgomery and John Thompson III – the group had no one with contemporary knowledge of the recruiting process or the sport’s problems. Granted, there was research done and interviews conducted but as an “exercise in education” it failed to produce a term paper worthy of anything above a “D.”

As the saying goes, “D’s get degrees.” In this case, the NCAA and college basketball leadership considers a passing grade as adequate.  

Wendell Barnhouse started his career as a sportswriter at 18 and spent the next four decades in newspapers writing and editing. From 2008-2015 he was the website correspondent for the Big 12 Conference producing written and video content. He has spent the last three years freelancing, most recently covering college basketball for The Athletic.

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