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Commentary: NCAA Still Ignoring Its Part of the Problem

  • Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a news conference at the NCAA headquarters, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Indianapolis. The Commission on College Basketball led by Rice, released a detailed 60-page report Wednesday, seven months after the NCAA formed the group to respond to a federal corruption investigation that rocked college basketball. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)



The Kansas City Star
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The tendency is to say the report accomplishes nothing, but that is not fair or accurate about the so-called Commission on College Basketball’s recommendations on how to save the game.

Because former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s group did help the adults in charge of the mismanaged sport feel better about their complicity in its ailments.

We will get to some of the specific recommendations below, but you’re busy, with stuff to do that might not include reading about an empty report that somehow took seven months and the brainpower of a lot of smart people, so here’s a one-sentence summary: They recommended blaming others, ignoring reality and not addressing the problem, which is the untenable relationship between reality and the NCAA’s rules regarding money.

The work and conclusions are so disappointing, and that feeling only grows the more you love college basketball and understand its root problems. Then again, one had to be quite naive to believe that an “independent” commission of accomplished people largely uninvolved in the sport and hand-picked by those who control it would actually have the teeth and motivation to do anything more than nibble at the edges.

Adding to the disappointment is that even before the report’s release, NCAA officials were working diligently to get coaches and others in the sport behind the findings no matter what.

This is what the NCAA did, then: It precooked soft recommendations by carefully selecting the committee members and pressured coaches and others in the sport to get in line with possible changes that ignore (or worse) the real problems while — and here’s the important part — protecting the NCAA’s control and profits.

The headline recommendations include eliminating the one-and-done scenario, asking for more financial transparency from apparel companies, doubling down on enforcement and opening access for certified agents.

Each of these suggestions is absurd in its own way. One-and-done is not an NCAA rule. It’s the NBA’s call, and besides, there is no evidence that it hurts college basketball. The majority of players allegedly connected to illicit payments played more than one year of college basketball, and many who believe they can go straight from high school to the NBA eventually learn they need more time.

Asking for transparency from apparel companies shows the committee’s unfamiliarity with the system it was ostensibly charged with fixing. First, college programs work for apparel programs much more than the other way around. Second, this is sort of like finding kids gathered around an open candy jar and politely and high-mindedly asking them to knock it off.

Doubling down on enforcement is also nonsensical without an honest self-evaluation of the rules being enforced. As one Power Five coach said last week: “We created this black market, and then we act surprised that a black market exists.”

The NCAA’s amateurism rules were created for a reality that either never existed or no longer exists, and doubling down with stiffer penalties and outsourced enforcement only adds to the fairy tale.

The market could not be clearer in telling anyone paying attention that some college athletes are worth more than tuition and cost of attendance. The NCAA’s rules have incentivized the action and made many seedy folks a lot of money.

The report does nothing to address that, instead pushing blame to the NBA (which drives interest to and assists college basketball), apparel companies (which fund college basketball) and the most talented players (who are used to promote college basketball).

The report reads a bit too much like pearl-clutching at the idea that an athlete might want to make millions in his chosen profession rather than become a sophomore or that competitive humans with billions of dollars at stake might follow the incentives put in place by a misguided set of rules.

Eliminating one-and-done would make some feel better, but would also be willfully ignorant of how the system most often works. Trae Young, for instance, would’ve been on nobody’s draft radar out of high school but is now a likely top 10 pick at Oklahoma. Should he have entered the draft last year? Or should Oklahoma’s punishment for signing him be the loss of a scholarship next season?

For every Marvin Bagley or Michael Porter Jr. (projected one-and-dones who live up to it), there is a Zhaire Smith or Jontay Porter (who progressed faster than expected) or a Brandon Rush or Miles Bridges (who might take a little longer and get more out of the college experience).

What’s the logic in forcing teenagers to make decisions too early or to fit themselves into boxes created by out-of-touch administrators?

Allowing undrafted players to return to college is a start, but does nothing to help kids who are told they’ll be a first-round pick and instead fall to the middle of the second round. Instead of gaining financial security and an NBA team that’s invested in his future, that player is on the brink of being cut after summer league and finding a team overseas.

The report attempts the shameful and intellectually dishonest duplicity of whining about the professionalization of college sports while ignoring that schools drive the trend by accepting billions in television and ad money as well as eight-figure contracts for coaches, arms races for facilities and perks for “amateurs,” such as luxury apartment buildings, chartered planes and fancy hotels.

But the most disappointing part of this may be the committee’s recommendation that athletes be allowed to talk with agents as early as high school. Rice’s argument is that if NCAA rules don’t allow athletes to take advice from agents, they’ll do it anyway, with less guidance and formal support.

Let’s be clear: She is undeniably correct here, and the recommendation makes perfect sense.

But the exact same thing is true about money, and yet the committee recommends a vastly different approach in that critical area, continuing to push a philosophy that was probably always misguided and is inarguably so in the 21st century.

What she said about advice from agents is also true about money from agents, money from apparel companies and money from any source other than the antiquated idea of a monthly stipend.

The most logical conclusion to be made, then, is that a committee put together by the NCAA was motivated all along to protect the NCAA and blame others for its problems.

What a disappointing waste of time. Rice had a real chance to be the change college basketball needed. Instead, she is telling the sport that its messy parts are someone else’s fault and that the solution is pretending it can simultaneously continue to make more and more money from professionalization while ignoring the realities that come with it.

NCAA officials got the cover they wanted, at least. The rest of the sport is left to deal with the same old problems.