What the NCAA got right and wrong in its attempt to reform college basketball

Yahoo Sports

If NCAA president Mark Emmert’s purpose was to address the widespread corruption exposed by the FBI investigation into college basketball, then the sweeping reforms he unveiled Wednesday should be regarded as a failure.

Significant progress cannot be made until the NCAA strikes at the heart of the problem and overhauls its beloved concept of amateurism.

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In a sport that generates billions of dollars in revenue each year, only the players are artificially restricted from earning what they’re worth. Universities sign shoe-apparel contracts worth tens of millions of dollars and winning coaches earn more money than school presidents do, but the best players are expected to be satisfied with free tuition, room and board.

The result is an underground economy that the NCAA has been unable to stamp out despite a rulebook thicker than a stack of Cheesecake Factory menus. College coaches and shoe-apparel companies funnel tens of thousands of dollars to the families or handlers of top prospects in exchange for their influence on what school the player chooses. Agents and financial advisers make under-the-table bribes to an elite player or his advisors in hopes of securing his business when he turns pro.

Instead of bringing that black market aboveboard by allowing players to accept money without jeopardizing their college eligibility, the NCAA on Wednesday offered athletes a few concessions but largely doubled down on its model. In accordance with the recommendations of the Rice Commission this past spring, the NCAA introduced new rules designed to deter future rule-breaking with harsher penalties for those who break the rules.

In an effort to compensate for its lack of subpoena power, the NCAA will now contractually obligate university presidents, chancellors and athletics staff members to comply with future investigations. The NCAA also will allow its Committee on Infractions to use information from outside investigations, meaning that whatever the FBI uncovers in its ongoing probe will be fair game in future infractions cases.

Those changes have enough teeth to deter some potential rules violators, but they won’t eliminate the issues that the FBI investigation exposed.

The unseemly way that elite prospects are bought and sold has been college basketball’s worst-kept secret for decades. Until the NCAA stops trying to construct rules to prevent elite players from receiving what they’re worth, efforts to snuff out that black market will inevitably fail.

What the NCAA did Wednesday was make enough changes to make it appear they’re doing something to respond to the FBI investigation. Not all of the changes are useless. Some are even good. But none of them achieve Emmert’s stated goal of making “profound and meaningful changes to college basketball.”

WHAT THE NCAA GOT RIGHT

College basketball players who enter the draft, participate in the NBA combine and go unselected will now be allowed to return to school as long as they remain in good academic standing and notify their athletic director of their intent by the Monday after the draft. This isn’t worded perfectly and it isn’t as big a change as some are making it out to be, but it’s a step in the right direction.

WHAT THE NCAA GOT WRONG

Needlessly limiting the draft prospects eligible to return to school to those who participate in the NBA combine and go unselected, meaning that this new rule will seldom be utilized. Only six players fit that criteria this past June: Rawle Alkins, Brian Bowen, Trevon Duval, Brandon McCoy, Malik Newman and Allonzo Trier. Of those six, Duval and McCoy are likely the only ones who might have remotely considered returning to college and it’s more likely they would have taken their chances as pros too.

The NCAA’s logic is presumably that if you can’t even get a combine invite, that should be your clue to pull out of the draft, but players who aren’t invited to the combine get drafted by NBA teams or sign two-way contracts every year. Why not give the option to return to school to anyone who goes unselected and remains in good academic standing, regardless of a combine invite? Yes, there will be some long shots who have nothing to lose staying in the draft with this as a failsafe. Yes, it will pose challenges for coaches who won’t have their rosters settled until late June. Are those good enough reasons to be so limiting?

WHAT THE NCAA GOT RIGHT

Elite high school basketball prospects will have the right to hire an agent the summer before their senior year if the NBA opts to begin allowing players to be drafted out of high school. So will any college player who enters the draft and requests an evaluation from the NBA undergraduate advisory committee.

This won’t address the problem of agents funneling money to teenage prospects and their handlers in hopes of representing them someday, but it does have some positive consequences. It should make “agent” a less taboo word in college athletics and allow all players to make more informed decisions about when to go pro.

WHAT THE NCAA GOT WRONG

Only allowing “elite” high school basketball players to be represented by an agent and putting USA Basketball in charge of determining who is an “elite senior prospect” and who isn’t. Why not let anyone who wants an agent attempt to hire one? The market will determine which prospects actually need one and which are just being overly optimistic.

Also asking USA Basketball to identify elite players seems problematic. Will a high school prospect who declines the chance to play for USA Basketball be hurt by that decision? And what about elite foreign-born prospects like a R.J. Barrett (Canada) or Charles Bassey (Nigeria)?

And then there’s this from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:


Doesn’t sound like this was fully thought out, does it?

WHAT THE NCAA GOT RIGHT

Division I schools will be required to pay for tuition, fees and books for men’s and women’s basketball players who leave school after two or more years to turn pro but later return to that same school to work toward completing their degree. Basketball players will be eligible for financial assistance to complete their degree if fewer than 10 years have passed since they left school.

This is the rare change that’s entirely pro-athlete and pro-education. Better yet, the NCAA is establishing a fund for limited-resource schools that are otherwise unable to provide financial aid for basketball players to return to school.

WHAT THE NCAA GOT WRONG

Overhauling the recruiting calendar in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to decrease the influence of AAU coaches and shoe company executives. None of the changes the NCAA made will stop prospects from aligning with grassroots teams sponsored by shoe companies or shoe companies from steering elite players to colleges they sponsor, but the NCAA’s fixes will make it harder for under-the-radar recruits hunting for scholarship offers.

The three-week July evaluation period has traditionally offered undervalued players from far-flung corners of the country the chance to prove themselves in front of college coaches who might never see them play during the high school season. Trimming that down to one weekend is better than eliminating it altogether as the NCAA initially considered, but it still strips away opportunities from kids.

Even worse, replacing the latter two weekends with five-day NCAA-sponsored camps is lose-lose for everyone. College coaches have a tough time evaluating prospects at a camp because players are often disinterested and the slapped-together teams lack the camaraderie or cohesion of high school or AAU teams that have practiced together for years.

The NCAA announced a series of reforms on Wednesday in response to the bribery and corruption the FBI uncovered in college basketball. (AP)
The NCAA announced a series of reforms on Wednesday in response to the bribery and corruption the FBI uncovered in college basketball. (AP)

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jeisenb@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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