New Plan to Reform College Basketball

Special commission wants to end one-and-done but largely punts on key issues such as athlete pay and time demands that might impede academic performance.

April 26, 2018

A special National Collegiate Athletic Association panel on college basketball on Wednesday called for high school players to be eligible for the professional draft -- nixing the so-called one-and-done phenomenon. Along with harsher punishments for programs that violate the rules, this was among the commission’s sweeping suggestions, an attempt to mitigate corrosive influences on the sport.

Many of the reforms put forth by the Commission on College Basketball, formed in the wake of an alleged kickback scheme, require action and buy-in from the National Basketball Association and other entities. Specifically, the NBA would need to scrap its requirement that players be one year out of high school before entering the league. This would end the widely criticized one-and-done model, in which athletes play for a single season before turning professional.

Critics believe this has led to exceptional players using college basketball as a mere springboard to the NBA, creating a dynamic where athletes focus just on their sport and not on academics -- a slight to the amateur model of college athletics.

Indeed, most of the commission’s recommendations, which now need NCAA leadership approval, stress that the status quo, an amateur system, should be maintained, not watered down or abandoned, as many detractors of college sports believe would better reflect reality.

“Our focus has been to strengthen the collegiate model -- not to move toward one that brings aspects of professionalism into the game,” said Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state and Stanford University provost and chairwoman of the commission, in a press briefing Wednesday.

Athletics experts in interviews with Inside Higher Ed complimented aspects of the commission’s proposals but said that preserving the NCAA model does little to address some problems that plague college basketball. The panel shied away completely from the issue of athlete pay and largely punted on those students being compensated for use of their names or images. Nor did it lobby for changes in the season schedule or the men's Division I tournament.

In addition to getting rid of one-and-done, the commission proposed:

  • Allowing athletes to remain eligible for college basketball until they sign a professional contract.
  • A new process for certifying agents and then setting up ways for athletes to work with those agents to explore the professional realm.
  • A dedicated fund for paying for the degrees of athletes who leave college early but have made at least two years of satisfactory academic progress. The commission noted this might be particularly expensive.
  • Strengthening NCAA investigations and adjudication by creating independent entities that would handle complex and "high-stakes" cases. Rice said in her remarks that no one the commission talked to supported the current system -- a volunteer board of college officials and faculty members that handles those inquiries and the punishments.
  • Increased penalties -- among them, allowing five-year postseason bans on programs and lifetime bans for coaches.
  • NCAA-run summer events for prospects, instead of relying on outside youth basketball programs. The commission wants the NCAA to “certify” certain nonscholastic events that coaches might attend and vet the finances associated the programs and sponsors. The commission mostly avoided other restrictions to summer recruiting -- and recruiting generally.
  • Restructuring the NCAA’s leadership structure, the Board of Governors, by adding five public members to it. Right now, college and university presidents and chancellors make up the entire board.
  • Requiring coaches, athletics directors and university presidents to state annually that they have complied with all NCAA rules.

Additionally, Rice said that the NCAA should discipline institutions that participate in academic fraud. Her comments were a clear slap at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which escaped NCAA consequences despite having sponsored faux classes for nearly 20 years. These “paper courses” in the department of African and Afro-American studies primarily helped athletes remain eligible, but the NCAA couldn’t ultimately conclude they were set up solely to benefit athletes, because some other students took the classes, too.

“Member institutions can no longer be permitted to defend a fraud or misconduct case on the ground that all students, not just athletes, were permitted to benefit from that fraud or misconduct,” Rice said.

She indicated a personal interest that the NCAA reconsider whether and how athletes can be compensated for their names, images and likenesses, a contentious debate taken up in multiple court battles.

Because the issue hasn’t been settled legally, the commission didn’t tackle this topic, said Rice, who hinted at the inconsistency of the NCAA’s policies. Just recently, a national champion women’s basketball player for the University of Notre Dame was allowed to appear on Dancing With the Stars -- but the association has refused other students' requests to profit from the visibility they've gained as athletes, as their institutions and the NCAA do -- the association recently reported it took in more than $1 billion in revenue in the 2017 fiscal year.

What Went Untouched

While some NCAA members and higher education authorities applauded Rice (American Council on Education president Ted Mitchell called the commission’s recommendations “thoughtful and far-reaching”) experts questioned to Inside Higher Ed how long the system could survive.

“They’re trying to hang on to something that fundamentally doesn’t work,” said Dave Ridpath, president of the Drake Group, an ethics watchdog group in college athletics and a frequent critic of the NCAA.

Ridpath did praise a potential shift in the way the NCAA investigates and adjudicates major cases. Right now, the Committee on Infractions, composed of volunteers from NCAA member institutions, handles major violations. But Ridpath said these men and women are less likely to sanction harshly because they know that punishing one prominent university can affect the association’s overall bottom line.

He used UNC as an example -- it’s a cornerstone institution that can earn the NCAA a lot of money, which makes the association loath to punish it. Independent arbitrators could make a difference here, Ridpath said.

The most significant rewrites to bylaws would be around investigations and adjudication, said Josephine R. Potuto, a former member of the Division I infractions committee and Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

She mused that she advocated for stricter penalties about 10 years ago, to the Division I Board of Directors -- with no results. She said ultimately the commission’s recommendations would benefit the NCAA, because they lay out some solutions that many have discussed for years but that there has been little movement on.

But Potuto was particularly frustrated that the commission didn't take on the name, image and likeness issue. Despite the legal battles over this, she said, the NCAA could be more proactive.

She also pointed out that truly prioritizing athletes might mean reworking March Madness and the season schedule, all of which went untouched by the commission. Much of that scheduling hinges on lucrative television contracts, from which the NCAA earns a huge chunk of its money.

The March Madness tournament completely disrupts a student's education, Potuto said -- and even for academically well-adjusted students, taking weeks off from class and then returning would be jarring. And many athletes already struggle in their courses, she said. A 2015 NCAA survey revealed that Division I men’s basketball players spent an average of 1.7 days a week away from campus and missed 2.2 classes per week during the season.

TV contracts dictate the college basketball schedule completely, said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute's Sports and Society Program. Yet the commission didn’t mention that in its final report at all.

“It was also interesting that television bans weren’t mentioned as possible increased penalties for NCAA violations,” Solomon said. “At one time, TV bans were used by the NCAA. That’s no longer the case. NCAA members don’t have the stomach to sift through the mess of what a TV ban would mean today, since so many games are televised. Innocent schools would be punished that have nothing to do with the violations. That’s the power of TV.”

Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College and sports law specialist, wrote off the commission completely as “prefabricated” and a “farce.” He said though it had been touted as an independent body from the NCAA, it drew from NCAA members, who would never support the truly drastic changes needed. Edelman has pushed for deregulating third-party payments to college athletes, which the commission did not take up.

“The NCAA achieved what they wanted to,” Edelman said. “They got a lot of publicity for themselves. They got to come in front of the media as reform minded and like they looked seriously at the issues. It was a complete waste of time.”

Response to a Crisis

The turmoil surrounding men’s basketball began last fall, when federal officials announced an inquiry into college hoops and corruption charges against assistant coaches at four high-profile programs -- the University of Arizona, Auburn University, Oklahoma State University and the University of Southern California.

Prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation alleged that the coaches had worked with representatives of Adidas to steer recruits to certain institutions in exchange for cash. Officials have hinted that the corruption was much more pervasive than the 10 men who were charged in September.

News reports appear to corroborate this. Yahoo Sports, which reviewed hundreds of pages of federal documents, reported that at least 20 NCAA Division I basketball programs and 25 players may have committed rules violations. The only other official movement on the case since September was the announcement this month of new charges against Adidas executive James Gatto. The indictment alleges Gatto conspired to pay tens of thousands of dollars to families of players at North Carolina State University and the University of Kansas to ensure they would enroll there.

The NCAA appeared to be caught largely unaware -- none of the association’s leadership knew in advance about the FBI’s investigation.

NCAA president Mark Emmert has not definitively commented on whether the association’s leaders, the Board of Governors, would adopt the complete recommendations -- his bland statement Wednesday only acknowledged and thanked the commission -- but it does seem likely. As Emmert intimated in his address at the NCAA convention earlier this year, the association’s image has been badly tarnished, and this can only be fixed with swift and divisive action. At that event, the Board of Governors pledged $10 million to carry out the commission’s proposals -- with an additional $2.5 million every following year.

Coaches have also been urged to support the proposals. The Sporting News obtained an email from the National Association of Basketball Coaches to its members telling them that “it is imperative that the commission’s recommendations be met with unequivocal support from each of us.”

The commission also requested support from the boards of directors of major apparel companies -- Adidas and Nike -- their influence over the collegiate sports world being well documented.

Neither the NBA nor its union have publicly indicated if they would be willing to work with the NCAA and revise the one-and-done rule. ESPN reported that the 2020 draft would be the earliest the NBA would overturn one-and-done, which some don’t believe is the cause of corruption. It’s a comparatively new restriction, created during the NBA’s 2005 collective bargaining agreement.

Should the NBA be disinclined to reverse one-and-done, then Rice said the commission would reconvene to consider other options, such as freshmen being declared ineligible.

In a joint statement, the NBA and the NBA Players Association said Wednesday:

We support NCAA policy and enforcement reforms that will better safeguard the well-being of players while imposing greater accountability on representatives and programs that fail to uphold the values of the game. We also share the commission’s concern with the current state of youth basketball and echo that all stakeholders -- including the NBA, NBPA, NCAA, and USA Basketball -- have a collective responsibility to help bring about positive change. Regarding the NBA’s draft eligibility rules, the NBA and NBPA will continue to assess them in order to promote the best interests of players and the game.

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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