Only minutes after Yahoo Sports published a story that laid bare how basketball’s underground economy works, the NCAA responded in the most predictable fashion possible.
It released a statement full of big talk, faulty logic and empty promises.
NCAA president Mark Emmert called for “transformational changes” on Friday after Yahoo Sports published federal documents identifying more than 20 players from high-profile college basketball programs who allegedly received cash or gifts from agent Andy Miller. Emmert said “people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports” and promised to work with the all-star committee he formed in October “to provide recommendations on how to clean up the sport.”
What’s missing from Emmert’s statement, of course, is any mention of the one substantive change that could actually address the problems plaguing college athletics in a meaningful way. Neither he nor the college presidents he represents appear willing to seriously consider abandoning the NCAA’s beloved concept of amateurism, allowing players to profit off their names and likenesses and bringing college basketball’s thriving black-market economy aboveboard.
In a sport that generates billions of dollars in revenue each year, only the players are restricted from earning what they’re worth. Universities sign shoe-apparel contracts worth tens of millions of dollars and winning coaches make more than school presidents do, but the best players are expected to be satisfied with free tuition, room and board.
The result is an underground economy that the NCAA has been unable to stamp out no matter how many pages of rules it implements. The unseemly way that elite prospects are bought and sold has been college basketball’s worst-kept secret for decades.
Miller is certainly far from the only agent making under-the-table bribes in hopes of securing a player’s business when he’s ready to turn pro. A five-figure investment in a 17-year-old McDonald’s All-American is a small investment when you consider that it has the potential to lead to a far bigger payday when that prospect signs his first NBA contract.
The schemes aren’t limited to unscrupulous agents either. College coaches and shoe-apparel companies often funnel tens of thousands of dollars to the families or handlers of top prospects in exchange for their influence on what school the player chooses.
To a college head coach, landing one strong recruiting class can be the difference between being fired and signing a multimillion-dollar extension. To a shoe-apparel giant, steering an elite prospect to a particular school is a way to stack the deck in favor of that program and ensure maximum return on an eight- or nine-figure sponsorship agreement.
Last year, one head coach at a power-conference school described the battle to land heralded high school basketball prospects as a “free-for-all” and compared it to “human trafficking.”
“It’s lawless,” he told Yahoo Sports. “The parents view it as, ‘Time to get mine.’”
As long as the NCAA clings to its vision of amateurism and denies elite athletes the right to seek fair market value, this underground economy will never go away. The only thing that will work is loosening the rules and allowing athletes to earn what they’re worth.
The most sensible new system the NCAA could adopt would be one that resembles the Olympic model. Schools would continue to only pay for scholarships, but anybody else who wanted to pay athletes would be free to do so.
Make it legal for athletes to have representation while still in college. That way agents can provide whatever they want to college athletes and work openly with them and their families the way they do in other parts of the entertainment industry.
Make it legal for companies to hire college athletes as endorsers too. What’s wrong with Nike investing $100,000 in Marvin Bagley to have him wear its gear in college and to entice him to sign with them when he turns pro? Or DeAndre Ayton filming a commercial for a restaurant in Tucson? Or Devonte Graham appearing on a billboard in Lawrence?
Such a system would certainly favor the most high-profile programs with the most fan support and the most corporate sponsors, but in reality that’s not all that different from what’s in place now. Duke, Kansas and North Carolina would still get a lot of elite recruits just like they already do.
The question for Emmert and the university presidents is whether they’re willing to embrace such drastic change. The answers so far aren’t promising.
The blue-ribbon committee Emmert formed to clean up college basketball in October features hardly anyone with firsthand knowledge of the problems plaguing modern-day college basketball. It instead includes folks hand-picked by Emmert because they’re amenable to the amateurism model he has long favored.
In October, Emmert made it clear his long-established feelings haven’t changed about allowing a free market to determine a player’s worth.
“There’s really not any interest among university leaders to convert student-athletes into employees,” Emmert told The Athletic. “The commission can go wherever it wants to, but I don’t think anybody is interested in pursuing that kind of model.”
Someday perhaps those in charge of college athletics will figure it out.
A black market will always exist until the outdated concept of amateurism no longer does.
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