In the wake of the FBI allegations about the seamy underworld of big-time college basketball there has been no shortage of suggestions about how to fix the problems. The NCAA has come under considerable criticism, as has its president, Mark Emmert, who reacted with surprise at the latest allegations.
I can’t tell you what he knew or did not know, but who is kidding whom here?
Big-time basketball and football are awash in money. As television rights fees climb into the billions (yes BILLIONS), and coaches’ salaries spike, are we surprised that there are players who feel entitled to a cut of the money? With the tens of millions that top-level pro athletes now command, is anyone surprised that an agent would take short cuts and break rules to secure clients?
Behind all these headlines, it is important to remember that there are many, many schools doing things the right way. This investigation and the allegations should not cast the shadow on everyone.
But there are some deep issues with basketball and football. It starts with what coaches are selling young men. You come to Kentucky or UNC or Kansas or a big-time program, play one year and go to the NBA.
The coaches don’t shy away from it, in fact they sell it. At its core the one-and-done college game has become transactional. Play college basketball for a year, make money for the schools and coaches and just months after you start school you will get your payday.
In football, the NFL requires players to wait three years after their class graduates from high school and football coaches sell “three-and-out” to recruits. But today we’ll stay focused on basketball.
The one-and-done model is a glorified (and free) farm system for the NBA. One-and-done guys aren’t there to go to school. Some of them pass the minimum number of credits in the fall to be eligible for the rest of the season and then never really see the inside of a classroom in the spring semester.
Unless the NBA builds a true developmental system like Major League Baseball, the one-and-done is our current reality.
So for all the best basketball players in the country (or those who think they are) let’s give them options.
Option 1: He can sign as a student-athlete to play in college and commit to stay there at least three years.
Option 2: He can sign to a professional one-and-done internship at that same school.
Under the internship model, he gets paid for the value of his scholarship but doesn’t waste the time of professors and tutors and doesn’t take up the seat in a classroom. The athletic department would offer him instruction in financial strategies, media strategies, selecting an agent and other skills relevant to being a professional basketball player.
But what about the amateurism model? What about the academic mission of the university?
Let’s stop kidding ourselves about amateurism and the academic mission. Coaches and the vast growing armies of athletic department administrators have certainly not taken a vow of poverty nor are they volunteers.
As for the academic mission, how many big-time championship coaches have been fired for a low graduation rate? Yet stellar graduation rates are rarely, if ever, cited as a reason to keep a coach whose teams are struggling to win.
If universities have a goal to train young people for their chosen profession, this plan trains John Doe to be the best basketball player he can be with a starting salary that no major can match.
This option just puts the money and the real goal out there for everyone to see.
However, this plan is not a free lunch for the player. If the one-and=done player rolls the dice and gets hurt, he is not completely out of luck. He would have to transfer to a junior college and work his way back in two years. It may seem like tough medicine, but all choices in life have consequences.
That drawback may also sway players and their parents to commit to three years.
Will this system be fair for all schools involved? Certainly not, but it will at least let big-time college basketball be honest about what it is. And it is a more efficient use of university resources.
The alternative is to stay the course and as the money gets bigger and bigger there will be more and more explosions of illicit payouts to players. There will be ever greater temptations to cheat by coaches under the pressures of win at all costs.
Certainly this a fairly radical departure from much of the current discussion, but it could be a starting point.
I think we all know where the emphasis on college athletics has been placed. Let’s stop kidding ourselves and either make the NBA create its own, robust developmental system, or we should own up to the problems brought on by big money and look for solutions that go beyond an ideal of amateurism that has ceased to exist.