There are hundreds of people in college basketball with firsthand knowledge of how cheating occurs in the sport today.
Somehow, NCAA president Mark Emmert managed to assemble a committee with hardly any of them on it.
Fifteen days after the announcement that federal authorities are investigating bribery and corruption in college basketball, Emmert formed a 14-member committee chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Emmert described the committee’s purpose as “examining critical aspects of a system that clearly is not working.”
Among the committee’s primary objectives will be assessing how AAU basketball is run and the influence of agents and shoe companies on the sport. The committee will also explore ways of promoting transparency and accountability in college athletics and examine how to better adapt to the challenges created by the NBA’s one-and-done rule.
“The recent news of a federal investigation into fraud in college basketball made it very clear the NCAA needs to make substantive changes to the way we operate, and do so quickly,” Emmert said in a statement. “Individuals who break the trust on which college sports is based have no place here. While I believe the vast majority of coaches follow the rules, the culture of silence in college basketball enables bad actors, and we need them out of the game. We must take decisive action. This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change.”
Emmert’s public desire to clean up college basketball sounds admirable, but the committee he has put together is unfit for the job he has asked them to do. There are plenty of accomplished, intelligent people on the committee, but there are no current college coaches, agents or shoe-apparel executives, nor is there a single player under age 45.
It’s probably a safe bet Rice hasn’t attended many grassroots basketball games in recent years or quizzed any agents about how they establish relationships with prospects. Same with former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler or any of the six current or former university presidents or athletic directors on the committee.
Ex-NBA stars Grant Hill and David Robinson have at least been through the recruiting process before, but that was more than a quarter century ago. That might as well have been the stone age considering how quickly methods of cheating evolve as college basketball’s rules breakers seek to stay one step ahead of NCAA investigators.
The only two committee members who undoubtedly understand how the sausage is made are former Georgetown coach John Thompson III and former Cal and Stanford coach Mike Montgomery. Both are familiar with the challenges of recruiting five-star talent and neither has been removed from the game for very long.
Thompson should be able to educate the committee by sharing stories of how his longstanding ties to agent David Falk undercut his ability to recruit at Georgetown. So many Hoyas players signed with Falk when they turned pro that many believe it became a turnoff to Washington D.C.-area AAU coaches with ties to other agents.
Why wouldn’t Emmert recruit more people for his committee who are actively involved for the sport? Wouldn’t current players or coaches have added a lot to the discussion? Or someone like outspoken former Nike and Adidas executive Sonny Vaccarro, who is as well-versed as anyone in the influence shoe-apparel companies exert?
One reason could be that Emmert doesn’t want to risk the embarrassment of a committee member becoming ensnared in the FBI’s ever-growing investigation. A more cynical explanation might be that the committee’s existence is just grandstanding since the NCAA and its member schools are raking in money via the current system and lack motivation to implement meaningful reform.
“Total political BS move,” one Division I coach said about the formation of the committee. “From the start, the whole thing screams that they have no idea what to do or how to fix it or they do not want to have an idea of what to do or how to fix it because the presidents are afraid they’ll lose all that money. Otherwise they would have done something real and serious.”
It’s disappointing but not surprising that Emmert’s objectives for the committee do not include an examination of the NCAA’s outdated system of amateurism. College basketball’s thriving black market exists largely because of NCAA rules prohibiting top players from earning what their worth aboveboard on the open market.
College coaches and shoe-apparel companies often work together to 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. One strong recruiting class can be the difference between a coach losing his job or signing a multimillion-dollar extension. Or between a shoe company’s flagship program playing deep into March or failing to make the NCAA tournament.
Agents and financial planners also have plenty of incentive in the current system to make under-the-table payments to top players in hopes of securing their business when they’re ready to turn pro. A five-figure investment in a 17-year-old McDonald’s All-American has the potential to lead to a far bigger payday when that prospect signs his first NBA contract.
It would have bolstered Emmert’s committee considerably to have some members with intimate knowledge of how these sorts of transactions go down.
There’s a reason why the FBI hired Leonardo DiCaprio’s character at the end of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster, “Catch me if you Can.” Sometimes you need a conman to catch a conman.
Without that firsthand knowledge of how cheating occurs in college basketball, Emmert’s committee is unlikely to amount to much.
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