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The Need to Empower College Athletes

KFC Yum! Center | Sept. 16, 2010 Photo by: Michelle Hutchins | Louisville Athletics

Breaking news: NCAA president Mark Emmert says there are systemic failures in college basketball that threaten the future of college sports.

In other news, the sun set last night and rose this morning. It probably will do the same tomorrow.

Emmert’s profession of shock and indignation at these revelations should disqualify him from his job, or any other job that requires a marginal ability to grasp the obvious for that matter. He must not have been paying enough attention to see the sorts of people who attach themselves to talented players as early as seventh grade. Or he was not intuitive enough to surmise that the relationships formed among AAU teams, shoe companies, and college coaches like Rick Pitino probably involved some cash changing hands in unscrupulous ways. Or he glossed over how the one-and-done rule forces some kids to spend a year in college against their will and incentivized them to find a way to compensate for some of the money they were prevented from earning. Regardless, Emmert should have understood human nature well enough to realize that a system in which everyone is making millions of dollars except for the folks who actually possess the marketable talent was unsustainable.

Emmert has maintained throughout every scandal that has unfurled during his tenure that the those involved in the particular scandal are the outliers, that they tainted the sanctity of college sports by their conduct. Can he do that when practically every elite program is implicated in the latest FBI probe? Emmert faces a crisis that is equivalent to what Major League Baseball faced with steroids a decade ago. He can do nothing, or launch on of his interminable investigations which ensure that anyone who is actually guilty will be collecting Social Security by the time a verdict is reached. If he does that, he all but guarantees that whoever wins this year’s tournament will, like North Carolina last year and Louisville a few years back, do so with a taint on their accomplishment. Or he can immediately impose punishments on the schools implicated, but to presume that only those schools are corrupt would be naïve in the extreme – although it would be juicy to speculate who would be favored in a tournament that excluded Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Kansas, Xavier, Wichita State, and Virginia. That, in fact, is the bigger problem with this whole mess; that years from now, like the steroid era in baseball, anyone who achieves anything extraordinary will be assumed to have done so by illicit means, whether there is evidence of wrongdoing or not.

Another option would be some sort of reconciliation process, where schools are given six months to audit their own programs, and those that come clean are given some degree of leniency, perhaps even amnesty unless their infractions are really excessive. After that six months, which would hopefully expire before the start of next season, any further findings of corruption would be considered cause for coaches and athletic directors to lose their jobs.

That doesn’t fix this year’s tournament, but the only way to do that at this point would be to completely abandon due process, which would be self-defeating. What Emmert appears disinclined to deal with is that the fact that the problem is systemic. There is simply no way to force young men to spend a year of their lives playing college basketball against their will and not expect them to find a way to profit from it. On the other hand, the math simply doesn’t work. There are currently 130 schools in division one in college football and 351 in basketball. Football allocates 85 scholarships, which adds up to 11,220 players. Basketball allocates thirteen scholarships per team, which adds up to 4,563 players. That’s 15,783 players. Let’s assume you want to give each of those players ten thousand dollars – which wouldn’t be enough to dissuade some of them from feeling they deserve more, nor would it deal with gender equity issues or with the rights of athletes from non-revenue sports. In any case, that commitment would cost $157,830,000. Is that money available? Kentucky and Duke could probably pay their share, but could Butler and Xavier? Would we ask the schools and conferences that can negotiate huge TV deals to share their wealth with other schools so that everyone can pay their athletes a stipend? Good luck with getting Emmert, whose salary is paid by member schools, to suggest that.

The inevitable result of paying players any substantial sum of money would be a tiered system where the 30-40 schools that can basically print money would separate themselves from everyone else and pay their athletes a real wage. That may be the only workable solution, but it would change college sports (especially basketball) for the worse. How many Cinderella stories would there be if each game was essentially pros vs amateurs? Don’t answer that because it looks like that already is the case.

A better solution is to find a way for athletes who see college as an unnecessary infringement on their ability to earn a living to go pro. It’s not that difficult, and it doesn’t have to mean the repeal of the one-and-done rule. Baseball already has a system in place where high school seniors either turn pro or commit to three years of college ball. They don’t go straight to the majors unless they are extraordinarily talented. The NBA could give any high school senior who does not want to go to college the option of signing a two-year contract with the G-League, at the end of which they would be eligible for the draft, with two years of competition as their audition. If they choose to go to college, they would commit to three years, just like baseball and, to an extent, football.

There’s pitfalls in this plan. Guys could go to the G League and find out that they aren’t as good as they thought. Or they may not be mentally ready for a league in which most players will still be in their mid-to-late 20s, in which case they would, under the current rules, be ineligible to return to college. Well, people make mistakes and they live with the consequences. That’s part of life. There’s a lot of people with tattoos they can’t get rid of. Having said that, this is an apt place to point out that several failed minor league baseball players have been allowed to subsequently play four years of another sport in college. This includes quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Chris Weinke, who won a Heisman Trophy at the age of 28 after playing six years of minor league baseball, which included a $375,000 signing bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays. How that is acceptable but a kid taking ten grand from an agent is a cardinal sin (pardon the pun, Louisville fans) is one of those lapses of logic that robs the NCAA of its credibility.

However, now that I think of it, if the agents who were implicated in this scandal had simply said that they were forming a semipro baseball team and had signed a bunch of players who also happened to be college basketball players, they probably would have gotten away with this.

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