Opinion: NCAA 'Reforms' Unlikely to Change Much

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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)


The NCAA is very adept at splashy announcements laden with buzzwords like "reform" and "action" but has been very poor over the years at making changes that actually change anything.

The latest attempt to reverse that trend, coming Wednesday under the banner of "Committed to Change," seems to be one of the NCAA's better efforts but will still likely fall short of its stated mission to clean up college basketball. Among a batch of rule changes born largely out of the Condoleezza Rice-chaired Commission on College Basketball are some very good proposals, some long-overdue ideas and some changes that will be more cosmetic than truly impactful.

"It took me 15 minutes to figure out that they did nothing about having the athletes for the table at this at all, and it's a knee-jerk reaction to maintaining the facade of amateurism," said Tammi Gaw, a consultant and attorney whose Advantage Rule firm works at the intersection of law, business and policies of sports. "They have so much money at stake, but they really think nobody can see how transparent it is. Lots of good words and not a lot of definitions."

Of course, there's only so much the NCAA can do as long as it is tied to the rigid definition of its amateur model, allowing athletes to accept nothing more than a scholarship.No matter how far the NCAA goes with its rules or tries to push the so-called "one-and-done" players into professional basketball, it is still a system where coaches can get big contracts by recruiting the best players and people attached to those players can leverage the scarcity of talent into various financial incentives outside the NCAA rulebook from boosters, agents and shoe companies.

In other words, no matter how hard the NCAA tries, it can't really stop capitalism.

With that in mind, let's assess what the big headlines from Wednesday and whether they'll make a difference in reality.

Headline: The NCAA will allow underclassmen who declare for the NBA draft to return to school if they aren't selected.

Reality: This is a sensible move on the NCAA's part, and one without any real downside. But there's also a catch. Only players with an invitation to the NBA combine are eligible, which could be a way to limit the number of players with little chance of getting drafted from giving it a shot. This year, there were 69 players at the combine, and the only ones who would have been eligible to return to school after the draft were Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier of Arizona, Malik Newman of Kansas, Trevon Duval of Duke and Brandon McCoy of UNLV. It's unclear how many, if any, of those would even have wanted to spend another year in college. The impact of this will probably be relatively low.

Headline: The NCAA is now allowing college basketball players and "elite" high school prospects to hire agents who are certified by the NCAA.

Reality: While sounding like a major change, it will amount to very little in reality. Yes, "agent" is no longer a taboo word in college sports. But logic says the vast majority of top high school players who end up taking advantage of this to "help them make informed decisions" will ultimately go into the NBA draft once the one-and-done rule is eliminated. And the college players who hire agents can only do so at the end of the season if they decide to test the NBA draft waters, under the condition that there's no financial relationship beyond expenses related to the draft process and that the relationship is terminated if the player returns to school.

While there's no downside to athletes getting advice, this does nothing to address what is actually against the rules: Agents funneling money to players as teenagers or while in college in exchange for becoming their client once they turn pro.

Headline: The NCAA is beefing up enforcement.

Reality: It actually is this time, and perhaps in meaningful ways. For years, the NCAA has blamed its lack of subpoena power for its failure to catch cheaters. "Let's be really clear - we don't have subpoena power and we never will," NCAA president Mark Emmert said on Wednesday.

But in a sense, they now have subpoena power by proxy with a new rule that allows NCAA investigators to "accept information established by another administrative body, including a court of law, government agency, accrediting body or a commission authorized by a school." From a practical standpoint, this means anything that comes up in the courtroom phase of the FBI's investigation into college basketball corruption could be used in an NCAA investigation. Or, if you remember back in 2013 when the NCAA was investigating Miami (Fla.) football, the enforcement division obtained materials from booster Nevin Shapiro's bankruptcy case that they weren't allowed to have. That was quite a major scandal at the time and led to the ouster of the NCAA's head of enforcement, Julie Roe Lach. That kind of thing could now become more commonplace.

"It adds and strengthens some of the investigative tools that will be available for our people," Emmert said. "It does allow for, in legal jargon, the importation of information gathered in other venues for the use in NCAA decision-making. That means that if there is a report gathered in a judicial system that we don't have to go back and review and redo that investigation ... and it also makes it easier to gather facts and not have contradictory facts in some cases."

Moreover, the NCAA is adding to its traditional investigative process by constructing a "Complex Case Unit" with independent investigators as well as NCAA investigators that will work on the biggest cases. Those cases will then be heard by an independent panel of 15 members with legal backgrounds "who are not affiliated with NCAA member schools or conferences." This is a major departure from the traditional Committee on Infractions model and could impact 3-to-5 cases a year, Emmert estimated.

Combined with stronger penalties, the NCAA enforcement process has more teeth than ever.

Headline: The NCAA is increasing the number of official visits recruits are allowed to take from five to 15.

Reality: Unofficial visits, where recruits have to pay their own way to a campus, have long been a compliance nightmare for the NCAA. So in an effort to eliminate the illicit money that funds these visits, they're allowing players to take more official visits, which are paid for by the schools. That sounds good in theory. However, coaches are wondering if it will incentivize kids to take free trips to schools they have no real intention of signing with and waste everyone's time.

Headline: Changes to the recruiting calendar and transparency rules will help clean up summer basketball

Reality: Because the FBI investigation targeted shoe companies, who have been running the summer basketball circuit for years, and exposed how those companies could influence where prospects attend college, this has been a huge area for the NCAA to shake things up. But the new recruiting calendar, which shifts the focus in the July evaluation period from AAU tournaments to camps run by the NCAA and USA Basketball, has little practical utility other than changing which weekends coaches are out watching players and in which cities. Meanwhile, it also looks like a bit, wet sloppy kiss for Nike, whose premiere event - the Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C. - was protected. And given the relationship between Nike and USA Basketball, it seems likely the swoosh will be plastered all over recruits at these new camps. In the end, though, kids are still going to be playing basketball in the summer for travel teams, and some will be incentivized to do so through either through loopholes or outside the bounds of NCAA rules.

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August 9, 2018


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