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My Column: In Defense of the NCAA

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Just because the college basketball system is broken, that doesn’t mean the NCAA is to blame

Rick Pitino looking guilty
You’re telling me Rick Pitino was sleazy? I’m shocked, shocked!
Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the FBI scandal that has left the college basketball world shaken, I have a question: Is anybody surprised?

It’s telling that when the news broke, the only person who sounded shocked (shocked!) was Rick Pitino. And he was likely lying. Everyone else who paid any kind of attention had zero problem believing that shoe companies were funneling money to recruits and their families and that certain coaches were in on it. That’s been an open secret in the game for years.

And we watch anyway.

This scandal isn’t going to kill college basketball. All it did was introduce specific coaches, schools, recruits, shoe companies, and dollar amounts.

Is the system corrupt?

Yes. After the FBI investigation, it will be less so, but there will always be shady antics. There were shady antics way back in the 1920s and 1930s before college basketball became a billion-dollar industry, and there will be shady antics in the 2050s and 2060s once college basketball has been supplanted by college Quidditch or whatever the next big sport is.

But here’s something to keep in mind: it’s not the NCAA’s fault.

This is not the NFL, where The League controls the entire infrastructure. Nor is it FIFA, where the officials in charge have proven themselves beyond all doubts to be willfully corrupt.

The NCAA is a collection of schools committed to preserving the idea of amateurism.

It has no subpoena power, which is why it took the FBI to break open the adidas pay-for-play scandal. The NCAA can’t threaten to throw people in prison or hit them with a charge for obstruction of justice if they don’t cooperate. It has been criticized as slow-to-move and toothless. Relative to the FBI, that’s admittedly true.

It’s also responsible for dispering billions of dollars, a significant portion of which are made by selling broadcast rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But that responsibility happened by accident. Back when the NCAA was founded, it had no idea it would one day sit on the rights to something worth billions. And unlike the NFL which funnels as much of its money as it can to owners or FIFA which channels as much of its money as it can to its bureaucrats, the NCAA funnels that money back to the schools, who use it to support their athletics programs.

There are a lot of schools who couldn’t afford women’s soccer or men’s track and field without NCAA basketball money.

Now, there are many people, some of them powerful media types like Jay Bilas, who think basketball players should be paid. They argue that this scandal is a perfect illustration that money needs to be brought out of the fringes of the game and into the sunlight under the auspices of the NCAA.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Let’s look at the arguments.

The universities are making a ton of money off these players; it’s only right that the players should see some of that.

Some universities are making a ton of money off their basketball team. Most fans don’t care who the individual players are. Oh, they like their boys once they sign and start playing, but had a different player signed instead, they would have liked him just as well.

Syracuse fans are going to watch Syracuse basketball. Sure, they’ll watch more if they’re good, but, even in mediocre seasons, they pack 20,000 fans into the Carrier Dome. Those 20,000 people aren’t showing up because a famous 18-year-old kid is playing for them, that 18-year-old kid is famous because he’s playing in front of 20,000 fans.

NCAA players can make as much as they want selling their image after they graduate. So what’s the big deal? Well the players will tell you that for the most part there isn’t a whole lot of money in that. Why not? After their senior year most players are better at the game of basketball than at any point during the past four years. So, why are their opportunities so much more limited than when they were playing? Because, with a few exceptions, it’s the team and the school that make the player, not the other way around.

There are better players in Europe than in college. Can you even name a single Euro team? If you can, it’s probably because one of your college’s former players is playing there.

The colleges and universities, the ties to the geography and the student body and the institution and its traditions, those things are what make college basketball what it is.

What about the few star players who elevate a program or who are NBA ready out of high school?

By all means, let them make money playing basketball. But not in college.

The NBA has been using the college game as a free developmental league for years. They are slowly starting to realize that, like baseball and hockey, there is a real need for a true minor league system. Good.

The NCAA was designed as an organization of schools committed to the idea of amateurism. They are not well-equipped to run a quasi-minor league; that would be directly at odds with their stated purpose.

Remember, it’s not the NCAA that came up with one-and-done, that was the NBA realizing that too many of its teams were taking flyers on high school kids who weren’t ready to play at the NBA level. That part of the system was broken. The NBA tried to fix it, and they created different problems. Let the NBA fix those problems by expanding the G-League as a viable option for those players who want to get paid. The NCAA should not take on additional responsibilities that it is not well-equipped to handle.

The NCAA has purview over dozens and dozens of sports. Why should it do something completely different for men’s basketball? There are huge Title IX implications. And again, college baseball and college hockey work relatively well. That’s not due to anything the NCAA does, but due to the way the professional leagues have set up their own development systems.

But the money is there.

Yeah, and that money goes back to the schools through the conferences. The money is a function of what broadcasters are willing to pay for NCAA tournament rights. It’s not unlimited. Giving more money to basketball players means less money elsewhere.

Again, there are no billionaire owners in the NCAA. What there are a lot of are athletic programs struggling to get by. More money to basketball players means fewer tennis programs, fewer track and field teams, fewer opportunities for other student athletes.

But why should basketball subsidize those other sports?

Well, if you’re going to get all Ayn Rand on me, why should the good basketball players subsidize the bad ones?

Based on the FBI investigation, the market value for five-star recruits is at least $100,000. Probably a lot more. Why should those guys get the same stipend as a two-star at a mid-major?

Once you start arguing that players should make their market value, that’s an argument that they ought to have access to a legitimate minor league system. I agree. But my point is that system should not be the NCAA.

But wouldn’t paying players make the game cleaner?

No. The best players are shown to be worth at least $100,000. The most common proposal I have seen for a stipend for basketball players is something like $200 a month. That’s still a huge difference.

If you’re a poor kid with shady relatives or a shady AAU coach, do you really think getting 2.4% of the amount you could otherwise get is going to dissuade those people from putting their hands out?

But if the best players went elsewhere, wouldn’t that kill the college game?

You’d lose maybe the top 40 players each year to a minor league. There are 351 x 13 = 4,563 D1 college scholarship players. That’s less than one percent of players lost. True, those will be the best guys, but college basketball did just fine during the days when Kobe and Lebron could go straight to the NBA.

The stars at the college level are stars because they are the best players at the college level. There are better players in the G-League and better players in Europe. But we watch college.

Now, if the skill level tapered off to the point where players were dribbling the ball off their foot every other trip down the court, I agree the game would indeed suffer. But, if anything, the skill level will increase. The top players in the college game will no longer be hyper-athletic freshmen, but four-year seniors who have spent years honing their skills and decision-making.

Let’s look at college baseball. The best high school baseball players go to the minor leagues, to a greater extent than would ever happen in basketball. Yet last year the College World Series set an attendance record of 357,646, or 22,352 per game. College baseball has never been healthier.

Conclusion

College basketball should be for players who want to go to college. Since its founding, the NCAA has been dedicated to making sure the student part of student-athlete has not been forgotten. That’s what the NCAA is good at. True, it could be better, but its investigative ability is limited without subpoena power. The FBI has just given the NCAA a huge assist, and at the conclusion of their investigation, the college game will be the cleanest it has been in a long time.

There are problems with the system. The NCAA doesn’t control the whole system, and to the extent that it controls some part of the system, it does a fine job of making sure the college game lives up to the ideals of amateurism.

There are things with basketball that need fixing, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The NCAA is not the villain in this story.