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NCAA reform now

The latest pay-for-play scandal highlights the utter ineffectiveness of current NCAA rules

Cleveland State v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Do NCAA revenue athletes receive adequate compensation for the revenue their hard work and talent helps to create?

That question has been at the heart of the debate regarding NCAA reform for the past decade plus. And the general question of amateurism has dogged the NCAA for its entire existence.

For most involved in the discussion, your answer is probably based upon your personal morals. Maybe you think that players deserve more money because any situation where the people creating value don’t directly receive that value offends you. Maybe you think that a scholarship is fair value in return for the revenue produced by revenue sports. Maybe you’re bothered by the extent to which money has infiltrated college athletics, and you think that college sports should somehow be made into an explicitly non-profit entity.

Whatever your personal stance on the issue as a fan, we had the privilege to ignore the kinda-hidden, sorta-secret, not-so-dark underbelly of money in collegiate athletics. Since we couldn’t say for certain who played fast and loose with the rules, and since we couldn’t say exactly where illicit cash came from, or who received it, and how much was out there, we could pretend to be blind to the issue.

Now that the feds have blown open a portion of the operation, there’s no more abstract debate. Rule breaking is hurting our sport, and significant reform isn’t something to be discussed in the abstract. It is now a necessity.

(I mean, it was already a necessity, but now nobody can put their head in the sand and pretend otherwise.)

The Allegations

For all seven of you who aren’t in the know, ten people have been arrested and at least six schools (Arizona, Auburn, Louisville, Miami, Okahoma St., & USC) have been implicated in various schemes to filter compensation to coaches and players to help convince those players to join on with schools that had certain apparel deals, or to sign as a sponsor for certain apparel companies* upon going pro, or to sign with certain agents upon going pro.

*Adidas being the company that has been caught, but don’t doubt for a single second that Nike and Under Armour aren’t playing the game right along side them.

Why the allegations are a Bad Thing

1. Integrity of the sport: Regulated money is enough of a problem in college sports. And yet we now have evidence that the #19 recruit in the country is evidently worth at least 100,000 in unregulated money. Obviously, basketball has a wildly uneven playing field, and it leaves coaches and administrators with a choice between following the rules and remaining handicapped on the recruiting trail, or flaunting the rules and hoping that the NCAA never catches up. Which . . .

2. The toothlessness of the NCAA: Six different programs have been implicated. If that were the extent of the problem, then 12.5% of member institutions from basketball’s six power conferences are evidently dirty. But you can be sure that other schools are working with apparel companies and talent hawks. You can do your own math, but I’d guess that somewhere between 25-50% of major college basketball have serious compliance issues. And the NCAA catches very little, if any, of it. What exactly are the point of the rules if they’re unenforceable?

3. While I have some sympathy towards the idea that athletes are at least receiving compensation somehow for the revenue they generate, this is not a good way to do it. For one thing, if implicated they stand to lose their eligibility. Even if they don’t take money, they might end up at a program that later gets nuked because of the actions of others. But beyond that, underground money isn’t likely to connect them to the type of people who have their best interests at heart. One of the agents arrested in the sting, Christian Dawkins, doesn’t exactly have a sterling record of representing the interests of his clients. By forcing these kinds of transactions into the underground, you’re increasing the chances that athletes are exposed to fraudsters and con artists.

What reforms should be on the table

And so we circle back to the question that we opened with: Do NCAA revenue athletes receive adequate compensation for the revenue their hard work and talent helps to create?

Objectively, the answer to that question is no. Or, to be more nuanced: For the most talented players in revenue athletics, the answer is no. And why is that an objective truth? Because the NCAA has artificially barred players from selling their talents on the open market, and as a consequence an underground market has risen up to compensate. That black market will exist for as long as the NCAA artificially restricts their athletes.

What will fix that issue? I’d like to see reform similar to that proposed by MGoBlog six years(!) ago. There would likely need to be tweaks and adjustments to make these types of changes work within the current framework, but I think it’s doable:

1. Allow players to profit off of their own likeness and name.

Great news! NCAA video games are back, and it actually has real player names in it! If a player wants to sell his autograph for 50 bucks, let him.

2. Allow players to sign agreements with agents

See the stipulations in the linked article above. Players are going to be looking for guidance since some of them are worth a literal 100 grand. Doing something to ensure that they are given legitimate services seems imminently sensible.

3. Allow players to sign marketing/sponsorship agreements, subject to NCAA regulation and approval

I’m willing to grant that maybe it would be bad if Phil Knight offered 5 star Oregon recruit du jour $500,000 to be a Nike spokesperson. But I also don’t think there would be a problem if Powerade wanted to pay Ivan Rabb a sum of money to be in their commercial either. Some common sense rules about what sponsorships would or would not be allowed would go a long way towards bringing black market activity into the light while allowing players to profit off of their own hard work and talent.

Objections to the reforms listed above

Boosters would find loopholes to the rules and ruin the integrity of college sports

Yeah, probably. No matter the system, people will try to cheat it. But the rules above will likely lower the amount of underhanded compensation because it offers legal profit avenues for athletes that attempt to minimize influence peddling. Thus, it should disincentivize cheating, particularly for athletes who wouldn’t want to risk losing their eligibility.

The rules would make it so that rich programs dominate poorer programs because athletes would profit more by choosing to attend popular, well supported programs.

You mean, exactly like the system we have now?

What about non-revenue athletes? Why should they get nothing? And what about Title IX?

One of my least favorite arguments when somebody else gets something nice (see: minimum wage/union arguments) is the argument that, because some other sympathetic group doesn’t get something they deserve, the group that is getting something shouldn’t. Revenue sports athletes produce crazy revenue for their schools, and the NCAA has artificially denied them access to that revenue. Let’s take steps to make that more equitable.

As for Title IX: Per the NCAA, title IX only applies to educational institutions, and not to outside entities like EA Sports, Nike, or agents.

I just don’t like how much money is involved in college sports, and this just further codifies it into the DNA of the entire system

I mean, I feel you. But that ship sailed decades ago. The sport you fell in love with has ceased to exist in that way, if it ever did. And the only way it stops existing is if fans stop caring. There’s no going back, so our only solution is to address these issues head on.

In the last few years, for basically the first time ever, Cal was actually competitive with five star recruits, and even landed two of them. Should I be worried that something fishy happened?

You know, it’s funny to look back at Jaylen Brown’s recruiting saga. Remember when there was a rumor that he would only consider Adidas schools? I wonder why people thought that might be the case?!

I mean, I know essentially nothing. People that I trust both for their inside knowledge and for their integrity don’t think anything untoward happened. If Jaylen Brown wanted $$$, he probably would’ve ended up at an Adidas school. If Ivan wanted $$$, there’s evidence he could’ve gotten that from his 2nd choice school. I don’t think it stretches believability to suggest that Ivan simply wanted to stay close to home and that Jaylen was a different cat who really valued the Berkeley experience. More than anything else, it doesn’t seem super likely that big money types would be paying people to go to Cal. But that might just be the naive fan in me.

Any other thoughts?

This probably isn’t the place for petty rivalry stuff, but boy wouldn’t it be funny if Arizona basketball burned for this?

[insert your own ‘Arizona: A Payer’s Program’ joke here]

And I guess USC too, but eh. Hard to be bothered much by Trojan basketball.