The NCAA must face up to its own corruption and fix its big-time sports problem
Failure to find a way to legally cut the players in on the riches will mean the end of its relevancy
Next week, the men’s NCAA Division I college basketball tournament will begin. But allegations of corruption will hang over March Madness — the result of an FBI investigation and subsequent reporting from ESPN and others. Big-time, but still amateur, athletes have been accused of being offered and accepting money and other considerations to play at big-time schools led by big-time coaches.
But the gulf between allegations, no matter how stark, and consequences is deep and vast, whether we’re talking about college basketball players and officials or once beloved entertainers or powerful politicians.
And anyway, as soon as some hotshot guard starts raining 3s from deep insanity in a crazy day of upsets and near upsets, the cloud of corruption will begin to dissipate over this year’s NCAA tournament, from the boardrooms to the barbershops.
Nevertheless, there is always that other dark cloud looming over big-time college football and basketball. And it never goes away. It is a cloud of hypocrisy. Big-time college hoops and college football are defined by the NCAA in a glib and self-serving way: As long as the players aren’t getting paid openly, legally and directly, the serious business of the multibillion-dollar games can continue the charade that they are “amateur sports.”
And it’s the players, the pre-pros, who bear the burden of maintaining the charade, get caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar and risk losing everything from their reputations to their eligibility to play ball and their scholarships.
Through the years, college athletes have explored everything from unionizing to litigating in an attempt to gain a slice of the college sports pie that’s bigger than a full ride and a stipend.
Former President Barack Obama says the colleges and universities can’t serve as minor leagues for pro sports. But that’s exactly what they have been since long before the 56-year-old ex-president was born. And that arrangement has benefited many schools and the pro sports leagues, especially the NFL and the NBA. The schools have gotten increased visibility and sometimes big money. Without spending as much money and time on player development as Major League Baseball does, the NBA and the NFL have gotten players prepared by the colleges to play, many already coming with star brands that further enhance the brands of the pro franchises.
In 2003, LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar forward, went directly from high school to the NBA, where he won Rookie of the Year. The ability of players to go directly from high school to college ended in 2005, leading to the current circumstance where many of the best high school players have to spend a year playing college hoops before seeking to head to the NBA.
Today, James, a social activist, decries the NCAA as corrupt. He calls for a new way of doing things: perhaps an enhanced NBA G League with a sharper focus on the interests and development of young players.
At the very least, the current arrangement exploits big-time college basketball players and football players; too many of them end their college eligibility without pro prospects, money or college degrees. Jalen Rose is a former college basketball star and solid NBA player. Rose, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and savvy sports commentator, now calls the current arrangement between college players and their schools a kind of indentured servitude.
For the most part, the NBA and NCAA have been content to look at the conditions and length of that servitude rather than ending it. Indeed, the NCAA has every right to enact the rules and regulations it thinks best. And it has every right to punish players, coaches and programs that fail to adhere to those dictates. And the NCAA knows its rights. In response to the most recent allegations of impropriety, Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, issued a statement that said, in part: “These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”
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So if time is not yet up for the current arrangement, it is running out fast, especially for big-time college basketball. Nearly 60 years ago, Wilt Chamberlain left the Kansas Jayhawks after his junior year to play a year for the Harlem Globetrotters before beginning a Hall of Fame NBA career.
More recently, guards Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay skipped college and played overseas before becoming first-round picks in the NBA draft, the route LaMelo Ball seeks to follow.
LaVar Ball, father of LaMelo and two other basketball-playing sons (Lonzo of the Los Angeles Lakers and LiAngelo, LaMelo’s teammate in Europe), says he plans to start a new league as an alternative to college basketball where young players might serve NBA apprenticeships. He might not have the clout and savvy to succeed, but Rose, James and other like-minded people could develop a league where young players get paid and develop their crafts while learning from the elders how to handle their off-court business.
When Obama says the current amateur system is unsustainable, it is a moral argument, rooted in curtailing what he calls the hypocrisy of big-time college hoops. Still, moral arguments are often ignored in America.
But every day that the NCAA fails to find ways to legally and openly cut the players in on the riches of big-time college basketball, it brings the organization a step closer to having top high school players finding alternative and more lucrative routes to the NBA. That’s a business argument that only rank amateurs would ignore.