NCAA Division I men’s basketball had a tough week. On Tuesday, Louisville was officially stripped of 123 wins from 2012-2015, including its 2013 National Championship, after an NCAA investigation discovered the program funded the services of strippers and prostitutes for current and prospective student-athletes with university funds. Ironically, this penalty had nothing to do with the Division I college basketball bribery and fraud scandal, in which the FBI implicated Louisville as one of the most severe offenders of “pay for play” recruiting tactics.
Instead, fraud and bribery were Friday’s news. Friday morning a Yahoo! report added perennial national championship contenders, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan State, along with Alabama and USC, to the list of schools which used cash advances, loans and money transfers funded by shoe companies to lure recruits to commit. The report listed dozens of “loans” made to high profile college basketball players or their family members, including Michigan State’s current player of the year hopeful, Miles Bridges, whose mother reportedly received a $400 cash advance from an agent. The largest “loan” given to a player was $43,500, as most cash advances were under $10,000 or involved players for receiving money for having lunch with an agent. In all reality, the report may have implicated more people, but the misdeeds were not nearly as egregious as some commentators expected.
That is, until late Friday evening, when arguably the biggest bombshell of the investigation went off. Around 10:00 PM EST, ESPN college basketball writer Mark Schlabach reported that an FBI wiretap recorded Arizona Head Basketball Coach Sean Miller, explicitly offering number one center prospect,DeAndre Ayton $100,000 to commit to play for the Wildcats. As a result, Miller became the first head coach to directly linked to bribing recruits.
In a response penned before Schlabach’s report was published, NCAA President, Mark Emmert, issued a statement, which can be viewed in full here. In relevant part, Emmert stated: “[t]hese allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules. . . . The Board and I are completely committed to making transformational changes to the game and ensuring all involved in college basketball do so with integrity. We also will continue to cooperate with the efforts of federal prosecutors to identify and punish the unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system through criminal acts.”
Emmert’s statement was predictable, and frankly, meaningless. He can speak all he wants about “punish[ing] unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system through criminal acts”, but the NCAA has only proven to be incapable of punishing anyone. It took five years to issue Louisville a penalty; it refused to hold UNC accountable for two decades of academic fraud; and, most importantly, it fostered a system where college coaches could secure recruits through cash payments. How can the NCAA hold itself out to be the governing body of intercollegiate athletics if it is not going to enforce its own rules? The FBI began its investigation and the US Attorney’s Office issued its indictments because the NCAA was not doing its job. But are these indictments for good reason? Is the NCAA even worth protecting if its administrators are not willing to protect it themselves?
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas commented that there are two options. The NCAA can either double down on its system and enact more amateurism rules, or it can come to grips with the fact that big money will always be a part of college basketball and amend its system to allow athletes to be able to meet with agents, plan for their future and receive the financial benefits that are flowing to everyone else. Bilas, a former Duke basketball player and law school graduate, has always been a zealous advocate of paying student-athletes their fair share. Predictably, he ended his commentary during this morning’s edition of College Gameday on ESPN with this quote: “no federal laws need to change. NCAA rules need to change.”
I agree with Bilas. In 1984, the Supreme Court held that the NCAA deserved enormous protection under antitrust law because it “plays a critical role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.” NCAA v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla., 468 U.S. 85, 120 (1984). Subsequently, the NCAA created a multi-billion dollar amateur sports empire at the expense of a free labor force, while relishing its position as the last bastion of amateur athletics in the United States. But, because it no longer follows these principles, the NCAA no longer deserves the protection of antitrust law, and the services of the FBI or US Attorneys.
It is wrong for coaches, NCAA administrators, schools and conferences to be handsomely compensated while Miles Bridges’ mother cannot accept financial assistance to pay for a hotel so her likely NBA lottery pick son can meet with an agent to discuss his future. It is wrong for Arizona and all of the other schools not yet named to pay players to play while other schools follow the rules. It is incredibly wrong that the FBI is now the police force of the NCAA.
But the worst wrong of all is that Mark Emmert is pointing the finger at everyone else for the dysfunction of his organization. The NCAA has refused to even acknowledge the realities of big-time college sports for decades and now it is all coming to a head. The kids are going to get paid one way or another: there is too much money out there and it is the logical consequence of the system the NCAA itself built. Reform makes indictments and FBI investigations go away. Coaches, shoe reps and agents are not criminals, and they should not be treated as such.
But reform also means recognizing the flaws in the system and admitting the NCAA was wrong–two things Emmert has consistently shown he will not do. Instead, with the underbelly of college basketball exposed, Emmert, as always, is looking to pass the buck and place responsibility elsewhere. In the end, he should look in the mirror.