Latest recruiting scandal exposes NCAA’s “amateurism”

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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].

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  • I agree that the system is flawed but people need to come up with a better argument for paying college athlete than simply “because they generate money!” About 75% of D1 football programs lose money operating their program. How much should we pay those players? Uconn several years ago had to shell out several million dollars to purchase unsold bowl tickets because no one wanted to see the team play in their bowl game. Should the players be on the hook for those losses? Let’s go back to “revenue generation. In order to generate revenue via a college sports team, a few things need to happen. I will sum it up for you. You have to invest billions of dollars building a college. That college needs money for financial aid, professors, employees, heat, water, electricity, food, insurance, maintenance, healthcare and so on. I think you get the point. There is only revenue in some sports because the school (and in many cases the taxpayers) invested billions of dollars building the school. That entity needs to be paid for. That 500 million dollar stadium needs to be paid for. It’s paid for through among other things, revenue from athletics! Imagine that! Part of that money allows there to be money in the first place. The athletes made no investment in the school or stadium, much like few of us have made an investment in the company we work at! We show up at our desk to use our free chair, phone and computer, while the owner of the company pays for everything associated with your job! Michigan a few years ago lost 60 million dollars on sports not named football and basketball. Revenue from those sports helps support the other 19 sports. Should Michigan cut the other 19 sports because they do not make money? If you say yes, then what are the repercussions of that? Well, I’d be willing to bet that Michigan would no longer survive as it currently does, and I’d guess that it’s football and basketball program would probably collapse. So diverting money from one entity to another allows the entire entity to not only survive but thrive. While the kids on the other 19 Michigan sports are paying to go to school and practicing just as hard as the football and basketball players, you could argue that their very existence allows the football and basketball team to attend college for free!

    Let’s look at Harvard. Harvard recruits the very best students in the world. Harvard also receives over 600 million dollars in alumni donations each year. There is a huge incentive for Alumni to donate because not only does it help Harvard exist, but it helps Harvard recruit and accept the very best students in the world. What’s the result of that? Harvard keeps churning out smart graduates who go into the working world and succeed and strengthen and maintain the value of the degree! One could argue that students at Harvard generate more revenue than any athletic team in the country! Should those students be paid for being talented and generating revenue past the financial aid they might receive? If Harvard started letting in kids with 2.3 GPA’s and the place went down the tubes, do you think alumni would donate as much?

    Where the NCAA fails a bit is that it’s more or less a monopoly. Yes, high school basketball players could go play in Europe or China if they wanted to for a year, but they don’t have a ton of options past that with the current NBA rules. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that you simply cannot allow and entity to spend 500 million dollars on a stadium then show up and say, “look the seats are filled, I generate revenue”, without understanding all the costs and other things associated with that, nor be willing to address what you do when you are part of a program that doesn’t generate revenue past expenses! Right now an athletic scholarship is approaching 100k in some cases when you factor in tuition, room and board, food, free tutoring, free media training, access to private health clubs, free medical care, travel for your family, up to a 4k stipend a year, free media coaching, unlimited exposure to future endorsement and branding deals and much more. Your scholarship is guaranteed from injury or poor play for 4 years (yes it is!) and can only be removed for things like falsifying grades or test scores in high school or legal trouble! That’s a fairly good compensation package for being able to run fast or jump high especially when most of them don’t seem to be able to afford to go to college on their own! What value would you place on being able to go to college for free because you are strong or fast while the kid who might be able to cure ALS one day as a biology major cannot afford to go to college?