NCAA Scandal Commission Reforms Will Fix ... Nothing

(Bloomberg View) -- There are two ways to fix college sports. 

One is to stop pretending that “amateurism” is the heart and soul of a big business and begin paying football and men’s basketball players. College athletes take money under the table now because they know they have more economic value than what they’re allowed to collect, which is the value of a scholarship. Putting the money on the table would eliminate 90 percent of the so-called scandals that have rocked college sports.

The other is to follow the example of baseball and hockey, two sports that give gifted athletes a choice when they finish high school: a minor-league professional path or a college path. Those who choose college aren’t eligible for the baseball or hockey drafts for three years. Which means that athletes who choose college genuinely want to be there. (When is the last time you heard of a college baseball scandal?)

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Commission on College Basketball, which was hastily put together by the National Collegiate Athletic Association after the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested four assistant coaches and a half-dozen others on bribery charges last fall, chose neither option when it announced its list of proposed reforms Wednesday morning. Instead, every step forward was followed by two steps backward. If the reforms laid out by the commission’s chair, Condoleezza Rice, were adopted, players would have a little more freedom to explore professional options.  But the NCAA would wind up being more powerful, more punitive and more bureaucratic.

The good news first: The commission wants to eliminate one-and-done basketball players, the ones who go to college for a semester knowing they will jump to the pros as soon as their freshman season ends. The one-and-done phenomenon is the result of a National Basketball Association rule that requires basketball players to be 19 before becoming eligible for the draft. Since both Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, and Michelle Roberts, the head of the players’ union, have both come out against the restriction that created the one-and-done player, it’s safe to say that it will be going away, allowing high school players to jump directly to the pros.

Although this was not part of the commission’s proposals, basketball players would also be well served if the NBA bolstered — and marketed — the minor league that it does run. Not every player who wants to go to the NBA is ready to make the leap directly from high school. But the NBA’s minor league gets little publicity, and the minimum salary is a paltry $35,000. Raising the minimum to $60,000 or so would draw players who prefer to go the professional route instead of college.

Rice proposed two other sensible ideas. One would allow players to have agents to help them make decisions, with the NCAA certifying the agents as the major league unions do. The other would allow a player to return to college if he is undrafted. These are things that should have been done years ago. The appalling unfairness of not allowing an athlete to get grown-up advice has long been obvious.

From there, alas, it was all downhill. The commission wants to ratchet up punishments for major infractions: suspensions for up to a year for coaches, five-year postseason bans, steep financial penalties. It wants to start outsourcing its investigations and its rulings on infractions. It wants the NCAA to be able to police academic fraud, even though it really has no legitimate role in the classroom. It wants to automatically punish any school that does not cooperate with an NCAA investigation. It wants the NCAA to begin taking more control of the teenage leagues that have proliferated, and regulate summer basketball camps. It wants shoe companies to disclose the money they pour into youth basketball. 

These proposals exemplify the worst of the NCAA: its lack of regard for due process (unmentioned by Rice), its constant efforts to reach into areas where it has no legitimate business (Nike has to follow NCAA rules?), and its authoritarian impulses. And, as always, its refusal to acknowledge that college sports has become a multi-billion-dollar business that uses its power over teenagers to prevent its labor force from being compensated.

Early in her remarks, Rice noted the value of an athletic scholarship, and mentioned the advantage ballplayers enjoy over non-athletes who often have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to pay for college. What she failed to note is that star athletes at big-time basketball or football programs have a market value that far exceeds the $50,000 a year a scholarship represents. And the players know it too — that’s why they are willing to take money that is offered by agents or shoe companies. That’s the core problem the NCAA won’t fix.

Since the 1980s, there have probably been a half-dozen efforts to reform college sports. They have usually been provoked by a scandal, and they have always resulted in reforms that never addressed the fact that the market is more powerful than the NCAA’s efforts to suppress it.

Several times, Rice used the phrase “the collegiate model.” That is a term coined by Myles Brand, the president of the NCAA from 2003 until his death in 2009. As he defined it, the collegiate model was a system that allowed for profit maximization for universities, conferences and the NCAA itself. But the workers — the athletes — played purely for the love of the game.

That model has never worked, and it never will. When will the NCAA form a commission that finally acknowledges that truth?

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."

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