Sports, Column

A Waste of Time: Condoleezza Rice and NCAA Commission Miss the Mark

When NCAA president Mark Emmert, a man described on Twitter as having hair “styled with the sweat of college athletes,” announced in October that he was creating a NCAA commission headed by former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to clean up the general shadiness in the sport of college basketball, most people—myself included—felt that there was a slim chance anything meaningful would come out of it. During this year’s Final Four, Emmert said that he didn’t want to waste Rice’s time—that alone appeared to be an indication of potential progress.

Alas, once again, the NCAA has left proponents of college athletes’ rights, as well as fans, annoyed by Rice’s recommendations—a list of broad, sweeping changes that are ultimately meaningless in the context of the many scandals to hit college athletics, the most recent one shaking men’s basketball to the core. After all, the report comes off as defending the current system—failing to recognize the fact that it is flawed in a lot of places, takes advantage of student athletes, and allows for tremendous corruption and profit throughout.

It’s not all bad, but a good amount of it is, so here’s my take—as a fan, a college student, and a frequent writer of sports—on some of the more significant recommendations put forth.

1) All Freshman Must Sit

The headliner of the recommendations was without a doubt the association’s attempt to strong-arm its big brother: the NBA. Back in 2006, the world’s highest-profile basketball league, then overseen by David Stern, enacted a rule that forced high school draft prospects to spend at least a year in college or overseas before entering the draft. This, of course, has created a mass exodus of freshman from college basketball each year, and addressing this issue was clearly a large priority of the commision.

Unfortunately, Rice stood at the podium and raised the threat of ruling freshmen ineligible in response to the chance the NBA never reverses course on the rule, a prime example of backwards thinking as the commission attempted to work the restrictive bylaws around eliminating the “one-and-done” phenomenon.

Changing the one-and-done rule would be excellent, but moving to an even more restrictive model makes no sense. The report states that, if the NBA refused to change the current rule, the commission would consider “including freshman ineligibility and/or the ‘lock-up’ of scholarships for a specified period of time” as a consequence.

Both are terrible ideas. Freshman ineligibility would cause the quality of the game to suffer tremendously and is just furthering the restrictions that are placed on student athletes.

Three years ago, the Big Ten formed its own commission, this time for football, and floated the same idea out under the guise of  “helping division one athletes adjust to the academic life of campus.” The commissioner, Jim Delaney, termed it a “Year of Readiness” and by all accounts was seriously hoping it would happen. At face value, this would help students struggling with academics, a rare case of the NCAA prioritizing the student part of the phrase, but it’s weird because of context. There’s already a rule in place—added recently, too—where athletes who don’t hit certain academic benchmarks coming out of high school are required to redshirt, so Delaney’s proposal isn’t even really necessary on that front.

Delaney and the commision came up with the freshman ineligibility idea for different reasons, but as far as the latter is considered the solution to not force players to go to school for a year is essentially making them sit out a year—a decision that is utterly counterintuitive.  

In a perfect world, student athletes would follow a path similar to that of college hockey—after graduating high school, they’re drafted, then can develop further in college if needed. This leaves players the capability to enter the realm of pro sports earlier and maximize their chances at having a lengthy, successful career, while others that are more raw or less talented can at least go to school and have something to fall back on.

2) Let’s Just Create More Turnover

The other threat, the “lock up” of scholarships, is somehow even more confusing to me. Taking away a scholarship from a program after a freshman leaves would be incredibly detrimental, and would essentially penalize teams for having good players—which makes zero sense. The way the commission approached the issue of one-and-done wasn’t very well thought out, as it’s not as if getting the NBA to vanquish the rule by inflicting odd infractions will suddenly cure problems with corruption and under-the-table deals. Overall, the idea of watching coaches struggle to fill rosters with transfers or walk-ons after a particularly tumultuous draft class would be a nightmare on top of the already crazy offseason.

3) NCAA Basketball 2K-Never

If I walked into the commission meeting room and was asked what the top priority, biggest issue, most important thing to talk about was, I would settle on the raging debate around paying college athletes. The reason there is so much corruption and backdoor dealings is a direct result of the NCAA’s incredibly strict bylaws—it knowingly provokes shady transactions. It’s why Arizona basketball head coach Sean Miller was reportedly caught on wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for Deandre Ayton, a consensus lottery-bound pick and generational player.

Miller wouldn’t have needed to resort to that player’s had much more leeway with the use of their image and likeness, and didn’t have to search out money from coaches and other shady channels. Wading into the debate over how to pay players or compensate them fully is a tricky subject, especially in terms of less profitable sports, but the fact remains that it would be very easy to allow athletes to sell their likeness for a video game—the NCAA can “solicit and accept money from media rights deals, apparel deals and other revenue streams,” but the athletes featured in these are left out. Actually sorting out how to manage the payment and other ethical arguments are even trickier, but the fact that Rice and the commission barely discussed it is a bad look.

4) It’s Not All Bad, Maybe

I’ve adopted a very negative tone for much of this—hopefully it came across as unsurprised disappointment. Why would the NCAA, an organization that has a rich history under Emmert of doing the wrong thing, suddenly reverse course and not just point fingers at everybody else? That’s not to say that it was a complete failure, though, as several things stuck with me as being mutually beneficial for the student athletes and the game itself.

The recent move to allow players to enter the NBA Draft process without signing an agent to test the waters, only to eventually return to school, was a much-needed change. The recommendation put forth takes student-athlete independence one step further, in a good way, as it adopts an understanding of how volatile the draft waters truly can be.

“Elite high school and college basketball players tend to misjudge their professional prospects,” the report reads. “Erroneously entering the NBA draft is not the kind of misjudgment that should deprive student-athletes of the valuable opportunity to enter college or to continue in college while playing basketball.”

So, instead of leaving undrafted players in limbo, stuck trying to work their way onto a G-League roster or being forced to head overseas, a shift to allowing players to return if undrafted—even if they signed with an agent—is huge.

Other positives of the report include moving enforcement out of the organization to independent investigators, allowing players to maintain eligibility after signing with agents, maintaining NCAA eligibility up until the signing of a contract, and adding public members to the board.

“The most significant thing is that the dialogue has been opened up,” commission member David Robinson told ESPN afterwards. Yet, in most cases it’s not the right dialogue to be opened up. The NCAA knows what’s wrong, but refuses to adapt, instead dragging out the same, tired thinking—even after putting someone with as much power and reputation as Condoleezza Rice at the helm.

The NCAA has always adopted the belief that the more and more restrictions you put on players and coaches and programs, the less problems you’ll have. Unfortunately, time and time again, that assumption has been proven wrong, and so at the end of the day, this 50-plus-page report is nothing but a blip on the radar that missed the mark.

Featured Image by Darron Cummings / Associated Press

April 30, 2018

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