Only Drastic Changes Can Fix College Basketball

October 09, 2017

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

The collegiate sports world was roiled last month by a growing scandal involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I men’s basketball programs. The allegations include bribery, with money transferring from companies to coaches and players, as well as the steering of recruits to specific programs, agents, and money managers in exchange for benefits during and after college. An FBI investigation resulted in charges against coaches at high-profile basketball programs, and indications are that more charges may be coming. Some observers have been shocked, asking why was no one was watching the proverbial cookie jar, while others suspected (knew?) there were bad things happening in Division I men’s basketball — but this time, people got caught.

The question is, if this illegal behavior was known, or at least was obvious to anyone in the know, where was the NCAA, the organization charged with rooting out athletic misbehavior? Here’s an answer.

If this illegal behavior was known, or at least was obvious to anyone in the know, where was the NCAA?
Sizable portions of the NCAA’s budget and those of the three men’s basketball divisions are reliant on revenue from the March Madness tournament. Why, to borrow from Aesop, would the NCAA kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

They wouldn’t, and they won’t. The NCAA does investigate program infractions, but it has not dismantled big athletic programs or curbed abuse. And generally, participating institutions are just fine with that — especially those with high-profile Division I men’s basketball programs, where revenues from television, donors, alumni, and product licensing are abundant. And colleges that participate in March Madness, especially those perceived as underdogs in the tournament, see their number of student applications rise. Finally, coaches and players are often looking to their future prospects — the next big program, say, or the NBA.

But scandals can arise when the wealth is not evenly shared. With relatively low-paid assistant and associate coaches and unpaid players (apart from athletic scholarships in Division I and Division II), there is a built-in incentive to find ways to tap into the money stream. There’s plenty to go around, and the language used in Division I basketball tells this story well.

First, there is the phrase "one and done," referring to the NBA draft-eligibility rule that allows a collegiate player with one year on a college team to go directly into the NBA. Some high-school athletes can bypass college entirely and go into the NBA if they meet the age threshold (now 19). But in any case, "done" means that the athlete is eligible to enter the NBA at age 19 and legally make money, and is done with his education.

Some people think the rule needs to be changed, but there is no consensus on whether the requirement should be strengthened or eliminated. If we raise the age, we decrease the athlete’s potential legal income; if we lower the age, we allow players to earn, but we deprive them of an education. And, as I have argued elsewhere, some time in college is better than no time in college, even if the student leaves early. Whatever the rule, why is an athlete called "done" when he is just beginning his athletic career and perhaps his education?

And then consider the colloquial phrase "death penalty," used to describe the most severe sanction handed out by the NCAA, which can lead to a program being shut down for a year or more. The words convey the magnitude of the punishment in the eyes of those within the sport: Program shutdown is death. The problem is that it punishes the athletes, many of whom did not participate in the wrongs. We end up "killing" the wrong people.

So, we have money driving engines at the NCAA and on campuses. Where are the voices of the people charged with nurturing, guiding, and educating students? They speak out occasionally but not nearly enough; there are plenty of opportunities to be heard, but faculty members and administrators are largely silent.

For his part, Mark Emmert, NCAA president, issued a terse statement after the federal charges were announced last month calling them "deeply disturbing" and vowing to cooperate with the investigation. That’s just not good enough, not by a long shot.

Here are two ideas to ameliorate (not eliminate) some of the Division I problems while keeping the golden goose alive.

First, any Division I university that gives a men’s basketball scholarship should have to keep whatever is left of it when the athlete leaves the university available in perpetuity for the player, when his career is over or for his children or his spouse or partner. So if a player leaves the university after one year, he should have three years of his scholarship available for future use. Whether this requirement should extend to other sports, like football, should be explored.

This will cost money (less in basketball than football because of the size of the roster), but its benefits are in its message. There is no "one and done." There is no "death penalty." A scholarship recipient is a student-athlete even if he forgoes being a student for a period of time. Institutions must commit to education and whatever it takes to enable the person (or family member) to earn a four-year degree: tutoring, support programs, mental and physical health facilities, faculty members (real ones) dedicated to success.

Second, the NCAA must be disbanded and its 400-page rule book discarded. Neither is working. Drain that swamp in its entirety; put the money in trust and start over. And, whatever new organization is formed, I hope it would incorporate the first suggestion, keeping athletic scholarships in place in perpetuity.

We need to ask: If we were designing an organization to oversee collegiate athletics, what would it look like? Not anything like the NCAA, I’ll bet. That organization, at least in theory, is run by participating presidents, but in actuality, it seems to be run by NCAA personnel and a few presidents.

Any new organization would need clout to succeed, and that would require strong presidential participation (not surrogates), cooperation among institutions (even competitors), and commitment to students. That will not be easy, but it will be necessary. Meanwhile, as we reflect on a solution, those of us who care about the value and integrity of higher-education athletics must stand up to point out wrongs and speak out about the importance of education, on and off the court and the field. We must open our eyes to what drives people and institutions: self-interest and greed. And we must push for a celebration of values that favor making the word "student" a permanent part of the phrase "student-athlete."

Karen Gross is a former president of Southern Vermont College and of the Division III NECC athletic conference. She also served on the NCAA Presidents Division III Advisory Group.