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NCAA Basketball Changes its Relationship Status to “It’s Complicated”

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-NCAA President Press Conference Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

When the FBI made a splash in the NCAA basketball scene last fall by arresting a handful of assistant coaches, the NCAA responded by doing what it does best: creating a committee. Mark Emmert — who is the result of a lab experiment which combined a dictionary of Mormon curse words with a loaf of Wonder Bread — promised this committee would be a list of top minds in the basketball world. He gathered together a committee that included former players (David Robinson, Grant Hill), former coaches (John Thompson III & Mike Montgomery), prominent athletic directors (Jeremy Foley & Gene Smith), and Condoleezza Rice (Condoleezza Rice) because she wasn’t busy, I guess. The idea was to come up with the most significant overhaul of college basketball since James Naismith stopped allowing tackling. They spent several months interviewing coaches, players, AAU and shoe company executives, invited information from the NBA, NCAA, and high schools, and the end result was a 53-page report where they screamed from the mountaintop:

WE THINK PLAYERS SHOULD BE PAID, JUST NOT BY US

The NCAA committee repeatedly stressed they want players to be able to earn a living playing basketball if they so chose, they bent over backwards to say over and over that the current system is too restrictive and players should be able to make a career playing ball. It just isn’t happening in the NCAA, because something something student-athletes college experience.

A lot of people are unhappy with this report, saying it doesn’t go far enough. My response to that would be: are you new to the NCAA? I have read the whole report, definitely because I wanted to see what they had to say and not at all to avoid working. The reality of this report isn’t as bad as some people think and not as good as the NCAA wants us to believe; there are a laundry list of changes big and small, a number of ideas with variable levels of feasibility, and a rare glimpse of self-awareness from the institution. I have taken more notes while reading this PDF than I did in the entirety of my junior year at UT, which in hindsight probably explains why my GPA looked more like a BAC test than a Richter Scale reading. I’m going to split this up into sections that (roughly) follow the reports itself. Let’s get to it.

Section 1: One & Dones and Player Perks

This is the section most people reported on because it was the place where the NCAA would (or as it turned out, wouldn’t) advocate for paying players. The committee deserves some acknowledgement for their firmest statement yet that the one & done phenomenon needs to end while making clear they’re aware just how little they control this point. The NCAA doesn’t control the NBA’s one & done rule any more than college baseball has a say over their players having to stick around for three years if they don’t go pro (I don’t see that mentioned much when people advocate for a baseball-style pro system in basketball). You may have heard the committee floating the idea of making freshmen ineligible if the NBA won’t change their one & done rule; it’s my opinion that was the committee posturing in a way that would negatively impact the NBA and nothing more, the days of freshmen being unable to play are so far gone that I don’t think they really meant that idea seriously. It’s likely a negotiating tactic, albeit a pretty poor one. The NCAA doesn’t have many levers to push in this respect though, especially with the G League hovering nearby (more on this later).

The committee refused to pay players, instead repeatedly stressing the value of a free college degree. This would mean more if the G League hadn’t already setup a system where players can take free courses through Arizona State for up to five years after they leave the G League; the NCAA is trying to argue their value is in waves hands furiously the collleegggeee experieeeencceeee. I expect they’re counting on people not knowing that G League players can get free schooling and post-basketball career preparations. I know a degree from Arizona State is only a half-step up from the University of Phoenix and only a full step up from an Oklahoma PhD, but it’s still a free degree that doesn’t have the baggage of Roy Williams trying to nudge you into an underwater basket weaving major because he needs you to shoot more free throws. The committee did recommend lifetime scholarships for all players who complete at least two years while playing which is a good step, and tagged onto that a recommendation that helps fund the scholarship pool at smaller schools who may not be in the position to float the cash that a larger state university can manage. There’s another note about using the Student Assistance Fund to help families travel to games (contingent upon means testing) that’s an under-reported but quietly helpful perk for a number of families who want to see their kids play.

Another positive step is the committee recommending players be allowed to go through the full draft experience and return to the school if they were not drafted. However, once a player declares for the draft he is a free agent by the NBA CBA, so the committee requested the NBA change their CBA to make those players ineligible until the next draft to keep the NBA from poaching players mid-season. I assume they made this request in the voice of Oliver Twist. My suggestion: move the G League draft (currently in October) to two weeks after the NBA Draft (June) and allow players to go through both drafts before having to hand their eligibility back to the NCAA. If the committee sincerely wants the players to be free to make money playing ball, they should be willing to accommodate this restructuring, right? I mean, they couldn’t possibly be attempting to stall the G League’s ascendance by conveniently forgetting to allow players to be eligible for that draft. That would be disingenuous, and Condoleezza Rice will not rep an organization led by disingenuous people. Right?

There’s a knock-on effect to this draft decision, which is that some teams cough Texas cough can have their seasons drastically impacted by a player cough Kerwin Roach II cough deciding to stay in the pro ranks. My suggestion: allow coaching staffs to hire a fourth assistant for recruiting purposes and/or roster management. The increased flux at the high-major level is unavoidable and coaching staffs are already recruiting 24/7 as it is, perhaps the NCAA committee could help spread the recruiting load out a bit. They suggested lifting the 2 hour summer interaction limit for coaches & current players and are recommending allowing non-coaches to train players, so they seem open to the idea of helping the coaching staffs out with their workload. This seems like a fairly easy change to make in the scope of everything they’ve proposed.

The committee proposed a certification process for agents, which will (theoretically) accomplish the dual goal of bringing the player/agent interactions into the daylight and offer players and their families earlier access to valuable information. This is not entirely dissimilar to what is already allowed in baseball and hockey. Hockey. You know hockey, it’s that sport where white people use sticks and fight each other, but don’t fight each other with sticks. It’s hard to explain but very popular among demographics who prefer snow to human interaction. Think of it like NASCAR, but with Swedes.

The committee declined to change the transfer rules, citing something something student-athletes college experience degree value America. When Seth Davis asked Condoleezza Rice on The Athletic ($) about why coaches are allowed to transfer but players aren’t she basically said “coaching is a profession but college is not” which seems pretty amazing when she was at the head of a committee who could have decided college basketball was a profession. There’s a recurring theme to their decisions which strikes me as, rather than investigating the landscape and making the major overhauls promised by Mormon Wonder Bread, they started with “players shouldn’t be paid” and worked backwards. So anyway, Gregg Marshall can leave Wichita State whenever the fuck he feels like but Austin Reaves has to sit out a year. That’s not changing. Moreover, they’re looking at making the grad transfer situation more difficult. There’s another committee called the Transfer Working Group which is definitely not a shoegaze band who is considering various penalties for programs who accept grad transfers that never finish their graduate degrees, because the NCAA is all about logical consistency. They’ll let a player go pro without getting a degree and not penalize anybody, but if a player leaves without getting a post-grad degree we need to shut that shit down STAT. A fourth coach focused on handling recruiting and transfers would probably mitigate this whole issue nicely, if only someone would propose that plan. Alas.

The other big news from this section is that the committee effectively kicked the can down the road with the idea of allowing players to make money off their likeness, citing the ongoing appeals in the O’Bannon case. On the face of things (see what I did there) it’s a reasonable stance to take, but when you look at it for more than a half-second it’s pretty easy to see the NCAA just didn’t want to say no yet. When the O’Bannon case gets sorted out, they will claim some other reason not to pay players for NIL (name, image, and likeness; get used to hearing this acronym in the coming years). One of the interesting points of emphasis from this section is that the NCAA stresses a player’s consent to allowing their likeness to be used is voluntary, which leads me to wonder what would happen if an entire basketball team decided not to consent. Imagine if Duke’s incoming freshman class refused to consent; I’m not advocating a high-profile team put this to the test. Nope, definitely not doing that at all.

Section 2: Wherein the NCAA goes all Judge Dredd

(checks word count)

Hey, so, maybe go use the restroom. Or if you’re in the restroom, maybe finish up and go for a walk. We’re probably a couple thousand words from the end and I don’t want to be responsible for you getting drop foot from reading your phone on the can for an hour.

Where the previous section seemed relatively progressive, the section the NCAA actually has near-total control over was considerably more regressive/draconian. If there is a corollary to dearly-departed Augie Garrido’s quote of “adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it”, it would be that a person’s actions when they are in power reveal more than their words when they are out of power. While the NCAA can be pie in the sky over getting rid of the one & done rule, when they went to the section in their domain they decided that fire & brimstone was the order of the day. They recommended university presidents and ADs have language written into their contracts that force them to cooperate with NCAA investigations. Call it Diet Subpoena, zero calories but packed with an energy blend containing ginseng and the adrenal gland from a great white shark. They also advocated for longer show-cause orders up to and including the possibility of a lifetime show-cause as well as increased penalties for programs that hired a coach with an active show-cause order. (The committee probably had a life-sized mural of Bruce Pearl painted while they discussed this section.) I have a hunch the lifetime show-cause recommendation is unlikely to ever be implemented because it’s basically begging to be sued, but they put it in there. They pushed the idea of longer post-season bans and — here’s where it gets good — the ability to force an institution to relinquish revenue-sharing for up to five years. They didn’t call it a death penalty, but any school who gets hit with a five-year March Madness ban and loss of their share of conference revenue might as well hit the reset button. Imagine Texas getting shut out of March Madness for five years and losing their share of the Big 12 conference post-season revenue as well; that’s a huge hit for any program with high-major hopes. The committee was big on offering the carrot in the previous section, but this section is all about the stick.

If you hate the prevalence of the carrot/stick metaphor in this piece, I would politely suggest that the information in this article outweighs your distaste for the metaphor. If that doesn’t suit you, then you’re going to have to deal because it’s happening whether you like it or not. Did I just use the carrot and the stick to talk about whether or not you like the carrot and the stick metaphor? Yes, yes I did. I’m meta AF, like the laziest Deadpool writer alive.

There’s another section in here about creating an independent arm of the NCAA that will be full-time professionals not pulled from the pool of NCAA employees, and two things strike me when I read that section:

  1. HOLY SHIT THE CURRENT ARM IS STAFFED BY VOLUNTEERS FROM INSIDE THE NCAA. Maybe I’m late to the party on this point, but the fact that a billion-dollar business was reliant on volunteers to enforce the rules is Peak NCAA. I’m a little surprised the committee didn’t tell those volunteers that the value of their experience in the enforcement arm was enough because something something volunteer-adjudicator college experience. No wonder the NCAA rulings are an engulfed clown car plummeting into a ravine, they’ve got Steve from Accounting moonlighting as an investigator between Fortnite sessions.
  2. Am I supposed to believe that this arm will actually be independent? Everybody loves an independent entity until it actually exhibits independence; the first time this group of independent investigators knocks on Duke’s door, that’s when we’ll find out if the NCAA is really invested in this idea of independence. To that point, this entire section is resting on the idea that the NCAA will properly empower the investigative arm to actually take action. There are significant portions of this report that bemoan the member institutions brazenly engaging in flouting the rules, and yet they’re suggesting these same institutions will hand over proper authority to an independent investigative unit that has been recently imbued with more power to fuck with the members’ money train? Consider me a smidgen skeptical.

While we’re talking about weird inconsistencies, I’d like to address the committee’s emphasis on consistency...by mentioning their prior actions should be no judge for consistency. No, seriously, they did that. At one point when talking about the issues with volunteers they say going forward they need to make sure punishment “is appropriately calibrated and consistently administered”, which is all well and good except later in the same section they say “the Commission recommends that the NCAA inform members that past penalties imposed for particular violations have no precedential value, and that the independent panel shall conduct a de novo assessment of the appropriate penalties for violations with the need for deterrence in mind. The panel must be free to calibrate punishment without regard to past practice”. Look, not to get more pedantic than a guy 2500+ words into a blog post tends to already get, but the way an organization applies consistent punishments is by setting precedents and adhering to them. Possibly the single biggest issue people have with the NCAA — well, other than the not paying players thing — is their inconsistent punishment scheme. They hammer a football player for monetizing Youtube videos where he talks about football but let North Carolina skate on a decade of fixing classes. Consistency is arguably the most infuriating aspect of college sports, from the block/charge call to how they decide punishments for coaches. Either you want to be consistent or you don’t. If I can put this in terms Mark Emmert will understand: you can’t put mayo on both sides of your low-sodium Saltines, man.

Yet another “the devil is in the details” recommendation is the committee saying they wanted to speed up investigations without any concrete steps in how to accomplish that goal. There’s a significant portion of this section that seems like they basically said “hire people and let them do their job” which I’m sympathetic to, but they need to flesh this out before we have any idea if it’s going to be a tangible goal.

By the way, an under-reported piece of the report was a recommendation (somebody come up with more synonyms for recommendation, please) that NCAA investigations be allowed to use evidence from outside entities. I can’t imagine a current situation where using evidence from another organization rather than having to replicate it internally would be useful. They must be streets ahead, thinking about some other fictional investigation in the future. Condi Rice is five years ahead of what you’re thinking about right now, she’s like if Elon Musk was a black woman who uploaded her consciousness into Amazon’s cloud. There’s no way this is a reaction to something happening right now the NCAA totally whiffed on, no way.

Section 3: Wait Are We Still Doing This

Congratulations if you’ve made it to this point, you’re either between jobs or a hopeless Barking Carnival degenerate and in either case YOU’RE MY BOY, BLUE. I’ve saved the best for last, or at least the last for last. It’s definitely one or the other, or both; the mescaline is really starting to blur lines here. Section three was a flowery name that basically said AAU IS DIRTY AF Y’ALL and attempted to tackle the problem of decades of negligence & corruption in 955 words. That’s less than 13 the length of this piece, which, holy shit do I need a hobby. I could be playing Assassin’s Creed Origins right now, or having sex with my girlfr-OK yes you’re right I’d be playing Assassin’s Creed Origins let’s not belabor the point. Did she send you? Because I told her I’d be open to new things if she’d just...fine, yes, let’s talk about AAU. For an organization that is the boogeyman for all things sketchy and rumored to be the source of all the ills in the student-athlete world, the committee spent a relatively small portion of their report directly focused on the AAU scene. That’s not to say the ideas were without merit; it just seems as if, when confronted with the portion of the report that puts the NCAA in direct conflict with the Nikes, Adidas, and Under Armours of the world, the committee starts to tread more carefully. For example, take the NCAA’s idea of creating a series of NCAA-sponsored events which feature prominent high school players and which college coaches can freely attend. Removing these players from the potentially unregulated and uncertified AAU world and bringing them into the NCAA realm would be a great way to limit the influence of shoe companies and help D-I coaches scout & contact players without running through some of the seedier elements. BUT when The Athletic asked Condi Rice about this, she kept the door open for Nike/Adidas/UA to run several events in parallel.

Here’s the thing: as much as many people love to hammer on AAU as the source of all evil in the basketball world, the reality is that the sketchiest shit happens at the behest of shoe companies trying to nail down endorsement deals with the biggest players. This concept of NCAA-sanctioned events is a potentially great move, one that allows D-I coaches to scout and talk to players in an environment relatively free of the less-savory elements. This is one of the few areas of this entire discussion where the NCAA could potentially leverage its billion-dollar enterprise to create a space that is somewhat free of the runners and agents it decries; if anyone has the ability to dominate the open period with events that bring the best & brightest players to play in front of Coach K, Roy Williams, and all the rest, it’s the NCAA. If the NCAA came out next year and said “for the next ten years we own April and we’re setting up events in four cities for all the best players” they could put the AAU scene under their thumb”. But they didn’t do that; instead, they said that they’ll take July and leave April to the AAU. It’s a half-measure when the NCAA is in the rare position to take a full measure. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were being short-sighted for the sake of pleasing corporate interests. It’s a good thing I don’t know better.

The committee talked about creating a long-term development league that slots high-school players in three levels that will effectively channel them towards NBA or NCAA development. This might be my personal chimera, but the fact that this committee is willing to consider a youth development system not entirely dissimilar from international soccer programs may be one of the better ideas in this whole document. If the NCAA is interested in funneling obvious pro players into the pros and if the NCAA is willing to invest in development programs of their own rather than outsource it to the AAU scene, it could end up being the biggest change from this committee. One of the reasons the international teams still tend to whip America’s ass in the World Cup is their ability to identify and develop talent from an early age; if the NCAA is interested in existing in its current form a generation from now then this is a potentially singular moment to inject itself into the talent cycle in a way they haven’t to date...which means they probably won’t, because something something student athlete college experience.

(sends CV to every G League affiliate)

Section 4: I Don’t Know Where to Put This and Words Are Blurring Together

From the PDF: “There is no single definition of elite. There is a small group of players each year considered to have the potential to jump from high school to the NBA (single digits); a larger group of 25-30 players heavily recruited by prominent Division I programs; and still a larger group playing in the elite apparel companies’ circuits (perhaps 800 spread over four recruiting classes). All told, Division I schools recruit roughly 1125 basketball players each year. Each of these categories may be referred to as “elite.””

I find a significant amount of enjoyment in knowing even the NCAA doesn’t know how to define ‘elite’. Seriously, they set aside a footnote of a major publication just to say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

If we’re talking about hilarious quotes: “The Commission is not naïve.”

If you have to declare it....

Section 5: Final Thoughts, I Think..Maybe

I’ve read this report and I’m feeling like if this is the massive overhaul the NCAA promised, then what are they going to settle on actually implementing? One would expect the initial report to be the most aggressive version of what the committee felt like they could go after, which means they expect to only get some portion of these recommendations executed. If the NCAA comes out of this with, say a bit more draft eligibility, post-career scholarships, and some cash for the families to travel to games then that’s a positive step, but it’s a small step. This isn’t football where the only other game in town is the NFL; the G League is spoiling for an (as yet undeclared) fight with the NCAA and they’re making moves to negate nearly all of the NCAA’s advantages. The G League is funding education, career guidance initiatives, salary increases, providing room and board....is any of this starting to ring a bell? Maybe the G League isn’t calling the press to a live announcement ceremony spearheaded by a former Secretary of State, and maybe that’s intentional. My hunch is that Adam Silver is quietly building an alternative to the NCAA for high school graduates, and the one & done rule will be the last thing they dispose of. By the time the marquee players are eligible to go straight to the NBA, the players a step below them will have a viable path to the pros that don’t necessarily involve college. The NCAA committee’s suggestions may be a series of band-aids rather than the sutures the sport requires, and if interest in college basketball fades over the next decade or two then the blame will lay entirely upon the shoulders of Mark Emmert’s organization.

BWG’s writing tunes provided by several hours of Gai Barone.