Should One-and-Done Be Done?

Purdue University's president harshly critiques the current system that allows college athletes to drop out and go pro after a single season.

March 1, 2018
 
Mitch Daniels

As startling allegations of widespread corruption have rattled the college basketball world in recent months, ideas have abounded about how the National Collegiate Athletic Association could fix the system.

Purdue University’s president, Mitch Daniels, joined that chorus recently, writing a letter that was unusually critical for the president of an NCAA Division I institution, few of whom criticize the association’s practices (except, perhaps, when their own institutions are affected by a policy or a ruling).

But Daniels’s focus in his Washington Post essay on the issue of “one-and-done” -- by which talented players play college basketball for a single season before going professional -- has drawn its own criticism, with athletics experts saying the phenomenon isn’t the root of the issues with big-time men’s basketball, but merely a symptom.

“Basically one-and-done needs to be done with,” said Andrew Zimbalist, professor and chairman of the department of economics at Smith College. “But it’s not the reason for these basketball scandals.”

Daniels addressed his letter to Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state and Stanford University provost who now chairs the NCAA’s Commission on College Basketball, formed in the wake of the scandal last year. Four coaches at high-profile programs were arrested in September for allegedly working with Adidas executives to steer recruits to certain institutions in exchange for cash.

While these initial arrests caused shock waves in the world of college sports, news reports and federal officials have indicated that the corruption is far more widespread than just four programs. Yahoo reviewed documents related to the federal probe that allege at least 20 NCAA Division I men's basketball programs could be in violation of the association's rules, as could at least 25 players. Recently, too, ESPN detailed how Federal Bureau of Investigation wiretaps reportedly caught the University of Arizona's head basketball coach, Sean Miller, discussing payments with a representative of one of the sports agents at the center of the federal inquiry.

NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement after the Yahoo report saying that if the allegations were true, they are “systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America.”

But the NCAA, as Daniels described it, is “impotent” to stop the abuses of the system. He offered a few solutions to ending the one-and-done phenomenon -- some of which have been recommended before, with little traction.

Daniels suggested that freshmen should sit out games in their first year, turning it into "a year of readiness." The NCAA discontinued such a rule in 1972, but the Big Ten conference and other leagues have periodically considered reinstating it, to little interest.

He also suggested using the structure that now exists in college and professional baseball, in which athletes either jump to the pros immediately after high school or need to spend three years in college, a deal between the NCAA and Major League Baseball.

Perhaps the most controversial of his pitches would be potential scholarship changes. If a college gives a player a scholarship, and then he leaves, the institution couldn’t pass it to another athlete, Daniels wrote.

“I’m convinced the college game would be more, not less popular, if a handful of would-be pretend students, whose names fans barely get a chance to know, instead went straight from high school to some sort of professional league. Doing so would certainly bring more parity and fairness to the college game,” Daniels wrote.

Online commentators noted that while it’s rare for a college president to speak out as Daniels did, his suggestions sounded a little, as one columnist deemed it, “pathetic.” Purdue, despite being a Big Ten institution, doesn’t tend to draw the same freshman talent as competitors like Michigan State and Indiana (this year’s results notwithstanding), and all Daniels’s proposals would benefit his institution. As Daniels points out in his letter, 58 percent of the one-and-done athletes -- the top tier -- play at just five colleges.

Officials from Purdue did not make themselves available for comment but said that Purdue has never enrolled a one-and-done athlete.

Daniels's argument has some flaws. For starters, the NCAA doesn't actually have direct control over the one-and-done rule, as it is determined by its deal with the NBA.

In an interview, Zimbalist of Smith said that one-and-done can’t be blamed for the influence of Adidas, or other apparel makers like Nike and Under Armour, on college basketball. The sway of these apparel behemoths has been well documented in both media reports and books, such as Raw Recruits and Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth.

One-and-done really only emerged in 2006, after a new set of contract negotiations with the National Basketball Association, which newly required athletes to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school to play professionally. Thus, athletes would enter college -- sometimes but not always attending classes -- and get a year under their belt before being drafted. The institutions that recruit these one-and-done students enjoy a big-name player for a year and the money that comes with it, and the NBA receives a much more seasoned athlete.

Zimbalist said the problem is that the current collegiate athletics system combines elements of amateurism -- as the NCAA intended -- with professionalism.

Some college coaches earn the same as their professional counterparts, which makes no economic sense, Zimbalist said. Essentially, those coaches are valued and are being compensated by recruiting star players -- who are not paid at all. This could be remedied either by creating a players’ market -- a professional league completely separate from institutions -- or enforcing the rules of amateurism and forcing athletes to make real progress toward a degree.

“Everything he said incrementally would be a step in the right direction, but I think the problem is 1,000 times larger than that,” Zimbalist said, referencing Daniels’s letter.

Enforcing a policy against one-and-done would be problematic, said Josephine R. Potuto, a former member of the NCAA Division I infractions committee and the Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

She questioned whether players would be made to sign a contract that compels them to stay in college -- and if that agreement was breached, would colleges go after the athletes in court?

It's difficult to change NCAA practices because of the diversity of opinions in Division I, not because the institutions aren't interested, Potuto said.

“If we solved the one-and-done problem tomorrow morning, we would not solve a number of the other concerns with college basketball, nor would we solve some of the other concerns [Daniels] raised, bylaws that don’t make it easy or possible to get at academic misconduct on campus,” Potuto said.

Potuto said that shifting the competitive schedules might remedy some of the problems in college basketball and academics, because the way March Madness is arranged, athletes are pulled out of classes for up to three weeks in the middle of the semester, which would disrupt even the work of a capable student.

But institutions haven’t always expected much from their athletes academically.

Daniels refers in his letter to the scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The NCAA declined last year to punish the institution for sponsoring faux classes for two decades. Through gritted teeth, the infractions committee said it could not definitively determine whether the courses were set up solely for the benefit of athletes, though it seemed almost assuredly they were.

The NCAA needs to work with its athletes so they can succeed in the classroom regardless of the one-and-done rules in place, said Dave Ridpath, president of ethics watchdog the Drake Group. Focusing just on the one-and-done issue is “myopic,” he said.

“If these rules are hurting Purdue and they want a piece of the cake, some of what he wrote is a little disingenuous,” Ridpath said of Daniels. “But absolutely it is a cesspool, and it’s going to be hard for Condoleezza Rice to do anything. One-and-done is not the sole problem here. It’s endemic.”

Rice’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Other members of the commission referred a reporter to either Rice or the NCAA. The NCAA declined comment.

It’s unclear what recommendations the commission will make. Emmert has signaled that reforms must happen quickly. In his address last month at the annual NCAA convention, he called for swift changes to programs in time for next season. The NCAA has set aside an initial $10 million investment for the commission’s ideas.

ESPN reported that the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, met with commission members in November and discussed the one-and-done rule. Silver wants to end one-and-done, according to ESPN, with an eye toward allowing high school players to once again make an immediate jump to the pros. The NBA’s union has long sought to draft players right after high school graduation. But it would likely need to cede one-and-done and mandate players who do enter college stay for at least two years.

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