An FBI news conference last week in New York that announced the arrests of four assistant coaches from prominent Division I teams sent shockwaves through the college basketball world. NCAA president Mark Emmert called the allegations of the payments for recruits “deeply disturbing” in an official statement. What the investigation has truly done, however, is expose the hypocrisy of the NCAA.
For decades, it has stubbornly remained committed to “amateurism,” a flawed concept that no longer applies to the model of college sports, in an aim to rake in as much money as possible. Coaches, athletic directors, apparel companies, boosters and agents have long recognized the value of talented high school recruits. From Chris Webber at Michigan basketball and Reggie Bush at USC football, an underground economy has always existed for the services of these players. Through wins, jersey and ticket sales and network television deals, star college athletes bring significant attention and income to both their universities and the NCAA.
The coaches, from programs like Arizona and Auburn, have been accused of working with advisors from certain sports management companies to funnel payments from Adidas to prized high school basketball recruits. Rick Pitino, who has already been placed on “administrative leave” has been linked to a specific Adidas payment of $100,000 to freshman forward Brian Bowen, who was ranked No. 14 in ESPN’s top 100 for the 2017 recruiting class.
What do these events mean for the future of college basketball? Although it has been accepted for a number of years by most in the community that these under-the-table and handshake agreements were taking place, there was never any hard proof or federal involvement. The NCAA has imposed harsh sanctions as a result of their own investigations when they have found solid evidence of student athletes receiving what they deem improper benefits. However, these allegations came from the FBI, which has promised to fully explore the prevalence of this behavior in college basketball.
A few major programs will suffer harsh NCAA penalties and damages to their reputations, as Louisville and Auburn have already lost commitments from top recruits. Unfortunately, after all the legal drama, do not expect much to change. The assistant coaches, company executives and player managers will continue to invest in these players and their games, albeit in a much more clandestine fashion, hoping to find the next Michael Jordan or LeBron James.
A system where student athletes would be paid weekly or monthly by the university, and would essentially be treated as employees, has significant flaws. For one, most college sports programs do not generate any income. In fact, sports such as tennis, golf, swimming, cross country, and others routinely lose money for their athletic departments and rely on the income generated from football and basketball. How would the athletes in these less popular sports be compensated? Is it fair to only pay star players that truly make money for their colleges? What about the 3rd-string defensive back who rarely sees the field?
Other critics argue that student-athletes are fairly compensated with their academic scholarship. In a pure economic sense, this is true for almost all players. However, the star quarterbacks and point guards that dominate TV screens are responsible for creating the product that is sold to fans nationwide, and are how the NCAA secures contracts like the 14-year, $10.8 billion dollar deal agreed to with CBS/Turner in 2010 to televise March Madness.
It is clear that systems like these will never be a reality because of the NCAA’s undying commitment to amateurism. Although the covert, undercover exchange of money and gifts from colleges to athletes will continue to persist because of their enormous potential values, there are productive steps that can be taken. Why can’t the shoe and apparel companies make their investments in these players public and above-board? It is the nature of the free market for companies to identify value in certain assets and pursue them. The players would be properly paid based on their skills and companies would generate income from their popularities. The money could be transferred through the NCAA to prevent any kind of bribery or corruption like we have seen in these recent events.
A parting note – what part of the behavior in these investigations are truly immoral? There are valid concerns about the the manipulation of these young athletes by their managers and apparel companies, but it would be possible for the NCAA to step in and provide protection by regulating the deals as a third party. Instead of exploiting player skills and likeness in the name of an outdated amateurism, the NCAA could and should truly act as a haven for student-athletes to excel in performance and further their education in this role.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].