Reclaiming the Amateurism Foundations of College Basketball
Earlier this week, the independent Commission on College Basketball (“Commission”) released its 60-page report containing far-reaching recommendations in furtherance of the sport. The twelve-member Commission, headed by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was formed in the aftermath of last year’s FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball. The Commission was primarily charged with looking into, and suggesting solutions to deal with, some of the ills that have long plagued the game, and that were otherwise brought to the forefront by the aforementioned investigation. In the words of Secretary Rice, “we need to put the college back in college basketball.”
Towards that end, the Commission presented to NCAA leadership and the public at large, a number of laudable reforms with the aim of improving and strengthening the state of the sport at the collegiate level, including the following:
- End the “One and Done” Rule. Since 2006, a basketball player cannot be eligible for the NBA draft until he is one year removed from high school. As a result, many talented high school players have, in a sense, been “forced” to attend college and have used their respective NCAA teams as mere temporary springboards towards their true professional aspirations. College, admittedly, is not for everyone; if a player (or any other person for that matter) does not want to be there, then we shouldn’t design and uphold a system that leaves him little choice but to do so. Otherwise, we are just hurting the individual, not to mention the team and the overall sport itself. The rule, however, is an NBA (not an NCAA) rule, which ultimately means that eradication of the same will require collaboration and execution by a party outside NCAA control.
- Harsher Penalties for Rule-Breakers. Right now, it is far too often the case that the benefits of cheating outweigh the risks. Providing for more onerous sanctions, including lifetime bans for serious rules infractions, would go a long way towards altering such calculus and reducing the incidence of NCAA violations. This approach should also extend to the academic realm, and specifically close loopholes that effectively render the NCAA impotent to address scholastic abuses of the kind recently seen at the University of North Carolina and other prominent institutions.
- Encourage Pursuit of Education. A player should be allowed and supported to explore options, so long as he retains amateur status. Consistent therewith, a player should be permitted to enroll in, or return to, school, if he enters the NBA draft, but ultimately goes undrafted. Likewise, the concept of establishing a fund in aid of degree completion by student-athletes who depart for the pro ranks after at least two years of satisfactory academic progress is a commendable one, and aligns well with NCAA espoused values.
- Greater Control of Agents, Events and Other Outside Influences. To be sure, we are probably living in a fantasy world, if we think we can truly insulate college basketball from all outside third party influences. However, the NCAA can, and should, put safeguards in place to minimize the infiltration of such parties’ self-interests, which, many believe, are anathema to the collegiate model and otherwise at the heart of the troubles faced by the sport. Creating and instituting a system of certified agents accessible to high school and college basketball players will allow the latter to receive the proper, and at times much-needed, guidance critical to effective career assessment, without having to resort to illicit and potentially harmful channels to do so. In addition, the NCAA should become further involved in the youth events and leagues that invariably serve as pipelines to NCAA programs, to thereby promote the best interests of the student-athletes.
- Independent Influences in NCAA Governance and Enforcement. The Commission’s call for at least five independent and outside representatives on the NCAA Board of Governors is a wise one. This is how most of Corporate America works, and the NCAA would be well-served by having the benefit of fresh, unadulterated perspectives, along with important expertise currently lacking within the Association. The outsourcing of the investigation and adjudication of serious infraction cases is another idea that has been bandied about before, and is worth considering going forward. Currently, volunteers from NCAA member institutions populate such committees; in doing so, however, they often bring a level of insularism and extraneous considerations that should not inform decision-making and are otherwise not in the long-term interests of intercollegiate athletics.
Notwithstanding the foregoing valid, well-intention recommendations, there were some high profile issues that were notably absent or lacking from the Rice report. Citing ongoing litigation, the Commission opted not to meaningfully delve into the “pay for play” or name, image and likeness (“NIL”) debates. While having schools compensate college basketball players (beyond scholarships and the like) would sound the death knell of the intercollegiate athletics model as we know it today, the NCAA should nonethelss entertain a reasonable loosening of current NIL restrictions, so long as the NCAA retains a license to those rights and the same are not used in conjunction with NCAA trademarks and other IP rights.
The NCAA should also reform the transfer rules that require student-athletes to sit out a year before competing for another institution. This limitation not only undermines the player’s athletic development, but, by removing an integral part of his collegiate experience, it may even compromise his academic growth and overall well-being as well, all without any student-centered justification for doing so. Finally, the NCAA should seriously confront the scheduling issues that keep players from being on campus and attending classes an average of almost two days per week during the season. If we are to live up, and do justice, to the notion of the student-athlete, we must overcome the lure of TV and sponsor contracts, and facilitate a framework along the Ivy League lines that provides for meaningful balance between academics and athletics.
The NCAA Board of Governors and the NCAA Division I Board of Directors were quick to unanimously endorse the proposals set forth in the Rice report. Bringing those to fruition, however, will require cooperation with, and resolve by, a series of constituencies beyond the NCAA itself. The NBA, NBA Players Association, USA Basketball, shoe and apparel companies, agents, AAU and youth leagues, parents and even players will need to play a part in this effort. Most importantly, presidential leadership – the avowed foundation of the intercollegiate system of athletics – will need to intensify and otherwise take control of, and accountability for, the success of these measures, and the resulting well-being of its student-athletes. Fortunately, presidents will have the chance to do so in short order, as now the real work of crafting and implementing the necessary rules begins.