Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 26, 2018

NCAA Commission’s Report Misses The Net

Last fall, shortly after news broke of a major federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the formation of a special commission charged with recommending changes to clean up the game. The fourteen-member commission, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was given six months to study the interwoven relationships between the NCAA, its member schools, coaches, athletes, the NBA, and apparel companies, and draft policy and structural changes that would promote transparency and accountability. “We must take decisive action,” said Emmert in November, adding “this is not a time for half measures or incremental change.”

This week Rice’s commission unveiled its recommendations, which were quickly endorsed by Emmert and the rest of the NCAA’s leadership. But while the joint statement by the NCAA president and the chairs of both the organization’s board of governors and the Division I board of directors promised a “profoundly altered landscape” for college basketball as soon as this autumn, the commission’s proposals look a lot like the very cautious and deliberate steps that Emmert promised to eschew.

In fairness to Secretary Rice and her fellow commissioners, that is partly because some of the factors contributing to the current culture of corruption are beyond the NCAA’s control. Foremost among these is the NBA’s eligibility rule, which requires young athletes to be at least one year removed from high school before they are eligible to enter the NBA Draft. Since it was adopted a dozen years ago, the rule has produced scores of “one-and-done” players who matriculate at one of the powerhouse collegiate programs, play a single season, and then immediately declare for the draft, often not completing even a single year of college coursework.

There is broad agreement that one-and-done has heightened the chances of graft. The roster turnover and increased recruiting demands put constant pressure on coaches to get leading high schoolers to commit. Agents lurk nearby, hoping to entice young players to sign as soon as they become draft eligible. The players themselves, forced to go a year without a professional payday, are tempted by the lure of under the table money. Meanwhile shoe company representatives ingratiate themselves to all of the other parties, hoping first to steer a player to a university with which they have a marketing arrangement and later to ink the freshman turned pro to an endorsement contract.

But the system is the result of language in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, meaning change is beyond the grasp of the NCAA. The initial response from both the league and the NBA Players Association is that the eligibility rule won’t be changed until at least the 2020 Draft, not exactly the definition of decisive action. It’s also worth noting that the players who have been named either publicly or in leaked documents from the ongoing FBI probe are not exclusively members of the one-and-done club. Changing the rule is a good step, but not one that will fix the game’s current culture all by itself.

Similarly, the commission’s call for greater financial transparency from AAU programs and the three big apparel companies – Nike, Adidas and Under Armour – is well-intentioned but impossible for the NCAA to enforce. The shoe manufacturers pay millions of dollars to major Division I programs to ensure that their products are worn on the court. It’s hard to imagine any athletic director sacrificing that kind of cash flow just because a company refused to reveal the finances of the many offseason camps and leagues which the three companies sponsor. In those relationships the leverage isn’t with the NCAA and its institutions.

There are recommendations that the NCAA can implement, and in some cases quickly. But not all of those appear well thought out. For example, the commission proposed allowing players who declare for the draft but are not selected to retain their collegiate eligibility and return to their team. What seems like a good idea in theory would likely collapse in practice because of timing. This year there are forty schools with multiple players, from two to as many as six, on the NBA’s early entry list for the 2018 Draft. The identity of those who will be passed over won’t be known until the sixtieth and last name is called on June 21st. Meanwhile head coaches are busy putting together their rosters for next season. It likely isn’t practical to expect a school to hold multiple scholarships open on the chance that players who have declared for the draft might instead return for another year.

Other proposals sound excellent but turn out to be relatively weak. Specifically, Rice and company favor five-year postseason bans for programs guilty of major infractions, along with lifetime bans for their coaches. Those are punishments that would surely make any would-be cheat think twice. But the commission isn’t suggesting that these severe sanctions be made mandatory, just that they be included in the range of potential punishments the NCAA could impose. Given the tepid history of NCAA enforcement actions, the likelihood of such rough justice ever being administered seems remote.

Easily the most disappointing aspect of the commission’s report is its failure to address the elephant in the room. Big-time college basketball is a cash cow for the major programs. That money is generated by what the young men do on the court, but the NCAA rulebook ensures that they are the only parties who can’t share in the profits. While Secretary Rice said in an interview that she and many commissioners believed that should change, their report sidesteps the issue, citing the pending Jenkins case. Jenkins is a federal antitrust suit aimed at upending the NCAA’s restrictions on paying college athletes. It has been plodding through the courts for five years, largely due to delaying tactics by the NCAA. Just recently the association’s lawyers filed a motion to postpone the trial, currently scheduled for December, until June of next year. Rice’s commission could have made a bold call for something other than incremental change but chose to kowtow to the NCAA’s policy of denial and delay.

In her remarks at the press conference announcing the commission’s recommendations, Secretary Rice said, “the crisis in college basketball is first and foremost a problem of failed accountability and lax responsibility. The Commission found that talking to the stakeholders was, at times, like watching a circular firing squad – the problem, the issue and ultimately the fault was always that of someone else. It is time for coaches, athletic directors, University Presidents, Boards of Trustees, the NCAA leadership and staff, apparel companies, agents, pre-collegiate coaches – and yes – parent and athletes – to accept their culpability in getting us to where we are today.” That is a damning and accurate description of the problem. It’s just not clear that Rice’s commission did anything more than join the circle.

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