Friday, March 02, 2018

College Basketball Payola

Anyone and everyone in law enforcement will tell you that just because everyone does it does not make it right.  Which means, of course, that the payoff scandal that has enveloped college basketball will have consequences for schools and coaches with both the NCAA and Federal law enforcement officials.

Major college football and basketball programs are a far cry from what they were even thirty years ago.  There is a lot of money involved, period.  Sure, most DI football programs lose money; those that don't can make a lot of it.  College basketball has so exploded in popularity that networks pay billions to televise March Madness. 

So, there should be plenty of money to go around.  Right?

Wrong.  Dead wrong.

The reason that there is not plenty of money to go around is that seemingly everyone gets to wet his beak save the people ultimately responsible for the product -- the players.  Yes, they receive scholarships, but they are mostly one-year renewable deals, and in many programs they are shuttled into courses and majors that enable them to stay eligible so that they can play.  In certain cases, those courses are not all that rigorous and don't provide meaningful preparation for a life after the sport.  And players need that preparation, for only a very small number go on to play for money (legal money as it currently stands) after college. 

Colleges make money in many ways off these players, some of whom are poor.  Sure, they get the scholarship and a miniscule monthly stipend, but that's it.  And if they should get hurt, well, they're gone.  All of the caring that was shown to parents and grandparents during the recruiting process vanishes in one of the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" scenarios.  This is ugly underbelly to that pageantry that exists before, during and after each game.

Some will argue that the NCAA is paternalistic at best and racist at worst.  The reason -- baseball and hockey players -- most of whom are white -- are allowed to have agents while in college and can turn pro right after high school.  Somehow, the basketball and football worlds don't like that; college has become a monopoly, a requirement, regardless of the fact whether some of these great players want to go to college or belong in college.  The racism/paternalism that exists denies them the right to play for money right after high school and compels them to attend a college program for a year.  The silliness of it all is that the colleges have had to go along with it, turning some programs into a peculiarity because, for example, Kentucky this year has no seniors on its team.  It gets so many good prospects that to stay for four years would be a failure.  But why do many of those kids have to go to college in the first place? 

So what's the answer?  One the one hand, you have those who argue that the players should get paid.  It is hard to determine how much they should get paid and who should get paid?  Everyone on the team?  Every college football player, or only those at FCS schools?  Should there be a union (unadvisable, as the NFL's union has not been all that successful) or should each player be a free agent?  Should there be salary caps?  The list of issues is long, and colleges also then would need to worry about their tax-exempt status.  Would just those sports be taxes, or the entire operation?  Some will argue -- eliminate the one-and-done rule and pay the players, and problems will be solved in college basketball. 

But why should the colleges have to bear this burden?  Then again, why should the colleges be in the for-profit business of sports anyway?  Why must players go to college?  Why shouldn't they be able to go pro the way they can in hockey, baseball, tennis and soccer?  And why can't NFL and NBA teams have academies the way international soccer clubs do?  Players sign at an early age, move to near where the club is, get paid, get tutoring so that they can get their education through high school and then focus on honing their craft and just playing?  It seems to work in international soccer, so why not for basketball and football? 

Sure, many in the paternalistic world of college sports won't like it, as it could be the case that many of the top 50-200 players might opt for an academy instead of going to college.  They can focus on their sport and get money for their families, which some desperately need.  This also could mean that the SEC football schools and ACC hoops schools, among many others, might not get the top prospects.  But this also could mean that the sports could return to being interesting and fun extracurricular activities and then some more than big businesses.  I still think that without five-star recruits Nick Saban would be inventive enough to win a national title.  The question would be whether the players who do not go into academies should get scholarships and salaries or just scholarships.  The formation of academies in the pro leagues does not solve the problem over whether college athletes should get paid.

This is a complicated topic with no easy answer.  The current system clearly does not work.  And if you have a system where people feel they need to cheat in order to keep up or tread water, you need to reexamine the system to determine how to change it so that no one has to break the rules.  It's one think to punish the violators; it's another to change rules and the culture that surrounds the sports.  The powers that be need to focus on the problem they are trying to solve -- whether it's to clean up the current mess and keep the rules in place or to clean up the current mess and change the system or the rules so that the integrity of the games, which is on shaky ground -- can be improved and the coach and players inserted into a system that does not provide much temptation to cheat. 

The vote here is to end the paternalism, let all kids go pro out of high school, take a lot of the developmental work away from the colleges, have the NBA and NFL teams form academies, leave college for the ones who truly want to be there, share more revenue with those who go to college, and put in harsh penalties for those who violate the new rules. 

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