Provocative thinking

Today marked a monumental breakthrough as the NCAA (the governing body with the power to enforce rules and regulations on college athletes) will now treat men’s’ college basketball players with prospective NBA talent with new policies designed to protect their eligibility and reduce the temptation to commit NCAA rule violations by coaches and players. The NCAA adopted extraordinary changes to its policies concerning men’s college basketball but the most significant one at least right now, will permit high school recruits and college players to be represented by an agent (who is certified by the NCAA) after any season and permit the player to maintain his eligibility. That is, any player who enters the NBA draft and is not drafted, may return to college and participate without losing any eligibility. In the past, once a player hired an agent, his eligibility was lost forever. Once a player entered the draft, his eligibility was lost forever. Now, to try and clean up its game, the NCAA is attempting to take the burden off the player and allow him to return to college if undrafted. That will also facilitate more continuity at the college level because many players will return to their college team to play another year or more which creates familiarity and stability in a program.

The NCAA, the “policeman” of college athletics, has lost control of its two top revenue producing sports. There are dirty little secrets out there that agents have been injecting themselves into future professionals playing college sports for decades. They do it in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s getting money or incentives to the players through third parties. Sometimes it’s actual coaches or boosters which provide the consideration. That can be in the form of a summer-time job which the player never shows up for or just giving a player some cash when nobody is looking. If you don’t think that happens in college basketball and football, then you believe in the Tooth Fairy. That’s not a bad thing either because she’s rewarding young children and always doing nice things. The facts do not support this view.

For the past two years, the FBI has been conducting investigations into college basketball alleging corruption at the highest level and the sport has been rocked by several scandals. Agents, specifically unscrupulous agents, are everywhere, trying to find a way where they can gain a college player’s trust by giving him material things and benefits with the ultimate payback being representing the player in the NBA or NFL draft and getting a large fee for his/her negotiation. These new policies, if adopted, were negotiated in conjunction with the NBA as well and requires all agents be certified by the NCAA. They would, however allow the agents to pay for meals and transportation for the players as well as their families after the season. The idea is that by giving the players some latitude and attempting to certify the agents, the NCAA will have more control over the process and these talented athletes will not be prejudiced by “gambling” and entering the NBA draft without any assurance of being drafted. The policies also recommend much stiffer penalties for those who violate NCAA rules including long term suspensions, longer post-season bans and lifetime employment limitations.

While that all sounds great, enforcement will be impossible. What they are suggesting for the players is a great idea and long overdue. What they are suggesting for the agents is a lifeline to circumvent the system by providing an opportunity to pay for things not only for the player but for the player’s family. It’s an invitation to abuse a good faith effort and it will be abused legally and illegally by others. Now don’t think for a minute I have the perfect plan for what is best for the NCAA, the players, the agents, etc. and thus best for amateur football and basketball. But this one is flawed and destined to fail because it gives agents too much power and flexibility to abuse it, especially with the access they will have. In fact, there will be more instances of violations and abuse on the part of agents and players. It’s inevitable.

So, why is this important to college football if it is only being implemented in basketball? Because it’s coming to football next. College football and college basketball are usually the only sports, with some rare exceptions (see college hockey) which generate revenue for its schools. Football, especially in Power Five conferences, dwarfs the revenue which is generated from basketball. Only 64 players are drafted every year in college into the NBA but 256 were drafted by the NFL and many others sign as free agents that are not drafted for substantial bonuses. The eligibility status in college football versus college basketball also needs fixing. Football certainly is a more dangerous sport and at least professionally, the NFL clearly has said it is against high school players, freshman and sophomores being drafted because of legitimate safety reasons. But that still leaves a plethora of juniors to decide whether they want to play professionally. Trust me, that means an abundance of talent to be exploited by agents infiltrating campuses and providing money and material possessions in exchange for the player’s promise to sign with the agent when he is eligible for the NFL draft. It is unavoidable that these new policies will trickle their way down to college football for two reasons. One, it’s by far the biggest revenue producer and two, the players are going to receive more and more benefits while they are in school because the money is just too big to not share it with the players and they want and deserve a bigger share of the pie.

The NCAA, too, wants to stay relevant. They want to display to the public they are trying to clean up the game. Most would agree the NCAA in the past has targeted many specific schools for lack of enforcement and NCAA violations. They seem to select who to investigate. That’s what happened at UNLV and their basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who ultimately was vindicated in Court but spent millions of dollars defending his reputation. That’s what happened at the University of Miami where the NCAA relied on the testimony of a convicted Ponzi-schemer trying to save his sole and the NCAA got laughed out of the court of public opinion. Then one looks at the University of North Carolina, where almost over two decades, academic fraud was alleged. The scandal became so egregious, North Carolina’s accreditation body placed the University on probation. In the end, the school saw it as academic fraud for ‘everyone’ (because non-athletes technically could take the same “fake classes”) and not just the athletes (although they were the ones who participated the most) and the NCAA after years of investigation, bought this ridiculous explanation and imposed no sanctions. Yeah, right.

So now the NCAA is finally getting some good publicity for doing the right thing; protecting a player’s eligibility, allowing him to sign with an agent and receive benefits for him and his family. All sounds good until it is implemented. Then, the agents will try to always stay one step ahead of the NCAA and usurp the policies by getting around them, legally and illegally. The door has now been opened. It may be too late to prevent irreparable harm on our sports. The agents are high-fiving each other right now because they will have accessibility as well as the authority to provide compensation in some form, legally. That spells trouble and the more players there are, the more problematic it will be. Look out college football; here comes the hammer.


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