Opinion: A Few Proposals to Fix College Basketball

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Copyright 2018 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


ESPN's Mark Schlabach reports that the FBI's investigation of college basketball recruiting "could result in potential NCAA violations for as many as three dozen Division I programs." A source tells Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports: "Hall of Fame coaches should be scared, lottery picks won't be eligible to play and almost half of the 16 teams the NCAA showed on its initial NCAA tournament show should worry about their appearance being vacated."

Goodness knows — though, to borrow from Mae West, goodness has nothing to do with it — that we've seen hoops scandals before: Boston College and point-shaving; Kentucky and its Emery envelope (and, before that, point-shaving); UNLV and Richie the Fixer's hot tub; Louisville and strippers; Baylor and murder. What makes this different is its sweep — assistant coaches from four Power Five schools in three different leagues have been indicted — and the entity doing the sweeping.

The FBI can go, and clearly has gone, where the toothless/feckless NCAA never could. The Feds have brought to light the subterranean money trail: Shoe companies sponsor AAU teams and steer players, sometimes via cash payments, to like-branded college programs; the cash buys not just a player's college commitment but binds him to becoming a (insert name of shoe company here) client once he turns pro, which with most top recruits means after one season.

The NCAA has no jurisdiction over the AAU. The NCAA wasn't responsible for the one-and-done rule; that was the NBA's doing. Still, it's the NCAA and its member institutions that are feeling the big heat. Once the Feds get done, college basketball as we know it could be gone with the wind. It needs to be.

The status quo satisfies no one. The NBA has conceded that one-and-done was an overreaction against paying teenagers millions. (To wit: Kwame Brown of Brunswick's Glynn Academy, No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft.) Any college coach who signs a one-and-done knows he'll have to do the same again next year, and the next. Even fans of those few Power Five schools where basketball trumps football have wearied of being able to cheer a player only for 4½ months.

On a national level, the game has receded to niche status — there are too many TV games with too few players you've heard of — until March arrives. Then it's a big deal again. Then April arrives, and many of the players we've just watched show up next in the NBA draft.

College basketball has become a sport propped up by a bracket. It used to be more than that. It can be again. Here's how:

| One-and-done must cease and desist. This will require the NBA's cooperation, but a college hoops crisis should put pressure on the pros. A return to none-and-done would mean that those who enroll in college are there because they want to be, not because of some silly requirement. If a player's good enough and needs the money, he can bank the NBA's. (Some have advocated that basketball adopt the baseball approach: You can sign with a pro team out of high school, but if you go to college you must stay three years. To me, that seems just another silly requirement.)

| Congress must take a hard look at AAU basketball. The AAU encompasses 38 sports, but it's infamous for only one. (Schlabach reports that the FBI alleged that a Florida AAU coach had his case dropped because, rather than pass shoe-company money to a designated recruit, he kept it for himself.)

Given that it's a national body, the federal government would seem the appropriate monitor. If the FBI's findings are as bad as expected, Congress could consider revoking the AAU's tax-exempt status if it doesn't monitor itself better. That would scare any organization.

That doesn't mean everything would be clean. For now, we'll settle for cleaner.

| The NCAA must shred its rulebook and make the next edition tougher. Bruce Pearl was fired by Tennessee for lying to NCAA investigators. He was given a three-year show-cause penalty. He was hired by a school in Tennessee's conference before those three years had lapsed. Auburn assistant Chuck Person was indicted by the Feds and is facing trial; he has been fired by the school. The two recruits to whom Person is alleged to have funneled money remain ineligible. Yet Pearl coaches on, his Tigers sitting atop the SEC.

This happens all the time. Louisville's Rick Pitino was due to serve a five-game suspension this season for strippers-in-the-dorm; he was fired, finally, in September after the FBI alleged he'd approved a $100,000 payment from Adidas to a recruit's family. (Being Rick Pitino, he's suing the school for wrongful dismissal.) Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine games in the 2015-16 season; he coached Syracuse in the 2016 Final Four. John Calipari presided over Final Four appearances with UMass and Memphis, both vacated; today he coaches Kentucky and, like Pitino and Boeheim, is in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

Put simply, the big guys tend to get away with it. (When the infamous Emery envelope — containing $1,000 in cash, addressed to a recruit's father — popped open, Jerry Tarkanian said: "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it will slap two more years' probation on Cleveland State.") North Carolina men's basketball skated on allegations of academic fraud, this despite the case essentially being made for the NCAA by the Raleigh News & Observer. The same NCAA just stripped Notre Dame of 21 football victories for violations so similar that school president Fr. John Jenkins claimed the governing body had "perverted" the concept of "academic autonomy."

Assuming the FBI allows the NCAA access to the evidence it has collected, the NCAA cannot pull another Miami and bungle an ironclad case. If it means hiring a better enforcement staff, do it. If it means dumping Mark Emmert, the ham-handed and tin-eared president, do that, too. If it means, "One strike and you're banned five years" for coaches directly involved in wrongdoing, let it happen.

| Oh, and this, too: Players must be paid.

Yes, it's a slippery slope. Do you only pay basketball players? What of football? What of gymnasts and golfers? But the NCAA awarded its tournament rights to CBS Sports and Turner in 2011 for 14 years at $11 billion; in 2016, it extended those rights through 2032 for $8.2 billion. There has always been a moral disconnect between billions for broadcast rights and multimillions for coaches to nothing beyond a scholarship that might span two semesters for those playing the games.

Maybe if a proper stipend — above the current cost-of-attendance allowance, which is south of $6,000 for one year — was offered, fewer players would have their hands out. Yes, that's a major "maybe," but it does seem fair. For the rickety entity that is college basketball, striving for fairness is the place to start.

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February 20, 2018


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