Think of the NCAA as a ship that’s been listing for quite some time, taking on water as fast as pumps can expel it and leaks can be plugged. Adequate resources and gifted shipwrights are on hand to apply transient fixes, but denial and patchwork measures like those offered by the Rice Commission on College Basketball won’t maintain the vessel’s seaworthiness indefinitely. Rust and wear, not to mention cranky internal systems and external injury, make lasting repairs essential.
Yet the NCAA sails on, its fundamentally compromised 112-year-old hull creaking and groaning, threatening to come apart at the seams as it wallows in contradiction and equivocation. Clearly the ship needs to spend time in drydock, subject to a comprehensive overhaul that starts with basic assumptions and works outward. Instead we get the Rice group’s observations from inside the bubble – the latest in a sporadic series of well-meaning task forces, symposia, reforms and restructurings that examine problems without confronting the organization’s fundamental flaws.
Condoleezza Rice and her cohorts did make beneficial recommendations for college basketball, giving the seal of mainstream approval to ideas floated for years by little-heeded reformers. Those include outsourcing and strengthening enforcement, liberalizing high school and college athletes’ resort to certified agents, retention of eligibility by players who aren’t drafted, and NCAA-administered summer basketball events where coaches can scout players without self-serving “apparel companies” holding sway.
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There was brave talk of handing out crushing, five-year postseason bans and TV blackouts for those who “consider the rewards of NCAA rules violations to outweigh the risks.” Good luck with that; the last time a school (Southern Methodist) incurred a comparably punitive “death penalty” was more than 30 years ago. Imposition of draconian measures, especially that might cost TV partners revenue, is sure to be side-stepped almost as assiduously as the NCAA avoids thorough self-examination.
The committee also urged closing the farcical escape route taken by North Carolina when under NCAA investigation, noting that “member institutions should not be able to shield academic fraud to ensure athletic eligibility by extending that fraud to the entire student body.” You remember the argument: phantom classes were available to anyone, so why take it out on teams whose athletes made up the majority of the enrollees?
Offering these adjustments, along with savaging the one-and-done rule over which the NCAA has no control, and praising the structural status quo, the commission concluded its deliberations.
Unfortunately, this sort of tinkering around the edges, responding to a scandal and taking the opportunity to review chronic troubles within a single sport, doesn’t provide systemic solutions. For that the NCAA should consider convening its constituents for a thoughtful and extensive debate over the organization’s most basic tenets, amateurism in particular, with an eye toward a rebuild.
Not that reformation was on the Rice committee’s radar. The group didn’t veer much from familiar waters. Its report asserted “that the answer to many of college basketball’s problems lies in a renewed commitment to the college degree as the centerpiece of intercollegiate athletics” – even though we’re long past the usefulness of a model that pretends competitors are volunteers gleaned from the student body, content to play without pay.
Actually, Division I college athletes do get sanctioned compensation. Receipt of a scholarship, “that prized possession in our economy and in our society,” as Rice put it, valuing a grant-in-aid at “roughly $1 million over a lifetime,” is simply a form of payment NCAA members prefer. But they also face obligations and restrictions, and public scrutiny, uncommon to other scholarship recipients. They’re hard-pressed to control their lives the way other students can, even if that’s their desire. They recognize, too, that their performances and likenesses are commodities on sale by others.
Such demands understandably lead critics to contend NCAA participants are “professional athletes who are not receiving a college education,” as the commission conceded. Nor do they appear to be receiving their fair share of the money gushing into NCAA coffers, pooling deepest in the staterooms of the most powerful programs and leagues.
Games have become product platforms in a multibillion-dollar business, as well as a major fundraising tool for schools, propellant in an athletic arms race that’s become an accepted part of campus life, and a lucrative payment stream for coaches, administrators and NCAA functionaries. The highest-paid public employees in 39 states, including ours, are football or basketball coaches. More than 100 major-college coaches in those sports are paid at least $2 million annually, led in North Carolina by N.C. State’s Dave Doeren.
How that breathtaking swag is distributed understandably generates the most attention and heartburn. Knowing that, committee members, including Hall of Famers Grant Hill and David Robinson -- strategically seated flanking Rice at the podium -- sidestepped taking strong stands on key monetary issues.
They demurred on consideration of paying athletes what their report called “modest salaries” or, more aptly in light of recent court activity, “providing student-athletes a modest post-graduation trust fund based on licensing of names, images and likenesses.” Since the group decided neither of those plausible options sufficed to reduce corrupting influences, they advised the NCAA’s captains to just keep bailing and sailing, doubling down on trying “to revitalize the college model.”
Remarkably, discussion of that model still includes the notorious paternalism with which the NCAA has long operated. The 13-member panel of former coaches, players, athletic directors and others appointed by NCAA president Mark Emmert lacked a single person currently enrolled in college. So much for recent course corrections touted for giving students a meaningful voice in decision-making.
NCAA leaders routinely insist they put the welfare of student-athletes first. That claim is belied when athletes aren’t sufficiently respected to include them in discussions that intimately involve their interests. No surprise, then, that the high-powered Rice commission not only dismissed new ways of sharing the wealth with athletes, but recommended ongoing restrictions for grad transfers, adults who already proved they can handle scholastic responsibilities without dictates from on high.
The persistence of identifiable blind spots on matters of importance reinforces the need for new ways to navigate. Clinging to old verities is fine, but won’t prevent rising waters from swamping the ship.