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The announcement came down from the NCAA on Wednesday, full of sharp-looking graphics, bullet points and buzzwords. Indeed, some real heavy hitters have signed on to its latest in-house attempt to clean up college basketball.
From former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to former Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley to Grant Hill and John Thompson III, nearly every sector of the uncomfortable relationship between big-time college basketball and higher education will be represented, trying to come up with ways to reform the sport in the wake of a sweeping FBI investigation into the sport's seedy underbelly.
"We must take decisive action," NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a release. "This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change."
Let's hope he's telling the truth. Because the typical NCAA way, the one that led college basketball to this still burgeoning scandal, is to form a blue-ribbon panel exactly like this one, talk about the issues, then come up with a package of "reforms" that win a 24-hour public relations victory but amount to almost nothing in changing the culture of a broken system.
"Not sure when's the last time they did anything meaningful," one high-major coach texted USA TODAY Sports.
This time, the question for the NCAA and its all-star committee will be simple: Can they handle the truth?
Because unless the following things are addressed in a meaningful way, this committee will be nothing more than a photo op for Emmert and a bunch of college presidents who are typically clueless about the athletics enterprises they are supposed to oversee.
Ownership of the grass-roots basketball industry.
Loosening of agent rules.
An overhaul of the NBA draft system.
Name, image and likeness rights.
Let's address these one by one.
First, my advice to this panel would be to start from the fundamental position that ceding control of the grass-roots system to shoe companies simply does not work. Giving Nike, Adidas and Under Armour full control of the primary feeder system for college basketball primarily serves those who form teams that travel across the country all summer playing in tournaments where the basketball is generally poorly coached and not particularly meaningful to development.
Not only are these "coaches" being paid by the shoe companies to put these teams together, but they often serve as middlemen in the recruiting process, where a lot of the backroom deals get made.
Certainly, there is an upside to the system. Every summer, there are a number of overlooked and underrecruited players who take advantage of the exposure in these tournaments and get scholarship offers they didn't have before. As Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin told me last week, "I've seen many young guys that didn't have any opportunities; all of a sudden they play one tournament and get a scholarship."
He also believes doing away with the so-called AAU system would disproportionately hurt players from inner-city schools.
That's a fair point, but it's high time for the NCAA, and perhaps even the NBA, to take some ownership of and responsibility for the system that develops their prospects. If you want to clean it up, there's no other option.
Second, Kentucky coach John Calipari was 100% right last week when he told FanRag Sports that players should be able to hire agents and pointed to college baseball, where drafted high school players can have agents negotiate contracts but still retain their eligibility if they decide to go to college.
"They don't need a new model because there's already a model in place," Calipari said.
But why not take it one step further? Everybody who has been around college basketball understands that the most difficult part for the NCAA or college coaches to police is that agents recruit players while in college, typically offering financial incentives in exchange for the promise of hiring them when they turn pro.
While states have put various agent laws on the books, the reality is you can only stop those kind of under-the-table agreements by making them legal and public. If an agent wants to loan a player and his family money to form that agreement before or while in college, make them sign a binding contract and declare it. Poof! You've turned an under-the-table scandal into a legitimate transaction that everybody understands.
Third, eliminating the NBA's "one-and-done" rule — which, again, is the NBA's collectively bargained rule and not the NCAA's — is a good start. But it doesn't go far enough. While a number of people have championed the college baseball model, where a player either goes pro out of high school or is bound to be in college for three years, that's thinking too small.
How about something closer to the hockey model instead? In essence, let players enter the draft whenever they want, whether it's out of high school or any of their college years, but they can do it only once. No matter where they get picked, the team that drafts them owns their rights for the next four years. Then it's up to the NBA franchise, the player and his family to collectively decide the best course of development, whether that's playing at Duke or Kansas for two years or signing a pro contract and going to the G-League. That lessens the risk and pressure on all sides of the equation and gives the NBA team and the college a stake in the players' development.
Fourth, and finally, it's way past time for the NCAA to give ground on name, image and likeness rights. Though the NCAA has waged an expensive and lengthy court battle to maintain the system, there's been more and more openness at the athletics director level to figuring out a way to make it work. Is that a pure Olympic model where college athletes can go get their own marketing deals? Is it some sort of group licensing arrangement where players who graduate have some sort of lump sum payment waiting for them? Is there some sort of hybrid that can allow college athletes the opportunity to capitalize on their popularity (many of them at the height of their marketability) but avoid turning it into a recruiting free-for-all?
These are not going to be easy discussions, but it's time for the NCAA to have them. And perhaps the committee Emmert put together is smart enough and bold enough to look at the issues honestly and without any fealty to the false prophet of amateurism, an idea that can mean whatever the NCAA wants it to mean.
Until proved otherwise, however, history tells us this will be another do-nothing panel of high minds and big egos who would rather say they tried to save the sport than do what's necessary to really change it. We can only hope this time the FBI has scared them straight; hope they can finally handle the truth.
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