Will the NBA Help Clean Up the NCAA’s Mess?


College sports (particularly football and basketball) have become a big money business in the United States. Since university athletes are amateurs, they are not able to earn money as the professionals do. This has led to a number of problems for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which oversees college sports in the United States. Scandals at NCAA school have become such a regular occurrence that some instances are reportedly being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Attracting top athletes without paying them salaries

With millions of dollars at stake in television contracts, ticket sales, and merchandising, how does a university athletic program attract the top young players in the country without being able to pay them? Here’s your scholarship, here are your Nikes or Adidas, here’s a brand new workout facility, and that’s about all we can offer you. None of those are unique since most top programs have the same things.

Former University of Louisville and Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. One of the best coaches in college basketball, but he's often followed by a trail of slime and scandal. Creative Commons via Wikimedia by Adam Glanzman.

But there are tricks to use. The shoe companies have paid assistant coaches and who knows where that money ends up? The University of Louisville’s basketball program allegedly had an assistant coach who paid for strippers and prostitutes to entertain its players and potential recruits. The University of Missouri couldn’t legally pay a top player to come to school there, so it hired his father as one of the highest paid assistant coaches in its history. Local alumni who are big fans are often called boosters; they have provided free cars, rented luxury apartments to players at below market rate, given free merchandise or free meals at local restaurants, taken them on free trips, and no doubt have been a conduit for cash payments to athletes as well.


Sources: WKYT (above) and baylorlariat.com (below).

This is not a new problem. You can go back decades. Many universities have had easy classes for athletes to take (or that they didn’t even need to attend), though authorities have cracked down on those. I have a friend who has taught at a big university and for many years there was an expectation (reinforced by administrators) that he would “go easy” on grading top athletes. Lots of people have stories about things that the most popular athletes did on their college campuses; normal students would have been disciplined, but not them. For example, at the University of Maryland before he was a high National Football League (NFL) draft pick in 1984, star quarterback Boomer Esiason was known to drive his truck on sidewalks and across lawns on campus, parking right in front of his classes or anywhere he wanted. He had a free pass so no one bothered him.

The Age Limit, One and Done Schools, and G-League Development

But the issue has become more acute as the money in college sports has increased. The stakes are higher. Every win brings you closer to a championship, but buying a sandwich for the wrong person can bring you NCAA penalties for “recruiting violations”. Since the NBA has a minimum age limit of 19, some athletes attend college for one or two years before declaring themselves eligible for the NBA Draft. This has led to some university programs as being known as “one and done” programs which recruit the top athletes and design their programs around their short expected durations on campus (there is no illusion they are there for an education).

NBA teams are using their own G-League teams (formerly D-League but now G- due to a sponsorship from Gatorade) for player development rather than merely for backup roster depth. In that way, it is becoming slightly more like Major League Baseball (MLB). College has never been an expectation for baseball, which has an extensive minor league player development system.

The D-League became the G-League after a sponsorship from Gatorade.

However, some NBA teams still do not have G-league teams of their own and the system should be much better developed if the NCAA is not getting the job done as a training ground. Perhaps there can be roles for both.

In truth, it’s hard to know if the lines make sense anymore between amateur and professional. In American football, colleges are used as training grounds for pro athletes. It is expected that most players will attend universities and their playing experience there will help develop their skills so that the cream of the crop will be ready for the NFL. In basketball, the expectation of everyone attending college no longer exists; some high school players (notably LeBron James) went directly to pro without attending college.

LeBron James as the nation's most promising high school athlete. Sports Illustrated cover.

Professional teams and sports agents can get into trouble for having contacts with players too early. The University of Southern California (USC) found that out again the hard way when the news broke that a sports agency had made payments to some USC athletes and/or their parents and/or their advisors (in basketball this time, after the school thought it finally had cleared its myriad football violations from years past). The payments were a paltry $2,000, but that’s as illegal as $2 million. As columnist Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times rightly articulated:

The most corrupt party in this deal is clearly an NCAA cartel that lines its pockets with little regard for the financial welfare of its athletes…Considering the billions of dollars that NCAA basketball players bring their schools, they should be paid at least $2,000 a month to supplement their scholarships. This entire FBI investigation, which could bring down celebrated coaches and players across the country, is silly.

I agree with him on all of that except for the last part. The FBI investigation could have some silver lining if it forces any resolution of the key problems. But I’d give the NBA a better chance of leading the NCAA out of its mess.

NBA to the rescue?

AdamSilver CC Keith Allison.jpg
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Creative Commons via Wikipedia by Keith Allison.

Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), seems to recognize that the current system is too rigid to survive. He’s also wary of losing an opportunity to foreign pro basketball leagues (from Australia to Lithuania), which can provide promising young U.S. players with income to play until they are old enough to be drafted by the NBA. Why can’t the NBA do the same?

According to ESPN and other sports media, it sounds like the NBA and NCAA have begun that discussion. This discussion is the most positive step forward for the NCAA in years. Let’s hope they create some flexibility on the age limit and allow athletes more mobility between amateur and pro sports (and, if needed, back again). Universities can be great places for young people to get solid educations and develop athletic skills, but even as the sports market has continued to grow, the NCAA has strangled any innovation with its greed and rigidity.

The Ball brothers have been playing in Lithuania, which in a sense robs the NCAA and NBA of the opportunity to feature their skills. Source: SBNation.

I hope the NBA’s foray into this issue prompts the NCAA to tackle its problem more comprehensively. Letting players move more interchangeably between NCAA college teams and the NBA’s G-league teams would be a great start. And if the age limit is an impediment, then they should consider whether setting that at 19 makes any sense. The NFL should follow the NBA’s lead in creating a more practical partnership also.

So many acronyms! If the NBA, NCAA, NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, any other pro sports, and the FBI ever get together for a joint meeting, they can call it the Alphabet Soup Summit and get the entity formerly known as Google to sponsor it. Or maybe Campbell’s Soup would pay them to call it the C-Summit or Soup Summit instead.

Alphabet Soup. Source: Creative Commons via Flickr.com by Mealmakeovermoms.







Top image: NCAA.com

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