After Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller was directly linked to a $100,000 payment offer to his freshman phenom and now PAC-12 Player of the Year, Deandre Ayton, I argued that the pay for play culture in college basketball was the logical consequence of the influx of money the NCAA receives and its unwillingness to accept governance responsibility for its actors–Hey, NCAA, This is Your Fault. On the eve of the NCAA’s 19.6 billion-dollar moneymaker, March Madness, there was bound to be a reaction from basketball’s biggest names.
Jalen Rose called on players to boycott the NCAA Tournament. Jay Bilas stated that NCAA rules, not federal laws, need to change. In an interview with USA Today, Draymond Green reasoned, “I think [my degree is] one of the best accomplishments in my life. . . . But in saying that, what you get for a college education doesn’t equal near what these kids are bringing to the university. . . . That’s where the corruption is. ” Arguably basketball’s most influential voice, Lebron James, argued that the NCAA was corrupt, its system was beyond repair and it was up the NBA to “shore up [its] the G-League” to provide the solution to all the problems the NCAA’s amateurism model has created. President Barack Obama echoed Lebron’s sentiments, labeling the NCAA’s current model “just not a sustainable way of doing business” and asking the NBA to create a “well-structured D-League so that the NCAA is not serving as a farm system for the NBA.”
Yesterday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver entered the conversation. Per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst (and in line with James and Obama’s comments), Silver reportedly plans to end the one-and-done rule and use the G-League and an academy system to develop NBA players out of high school. The report notes that Silver plans to wait for the NCAA Committee on College Basketball’s recommendations, but it is clear the Commissioner has already started planning the future of basketball in the United States, and has no plan to ask for the NCAA’s input or assistance.
“We’ve talked a lot about youth development in terms of whether we should be getting involved in some of these young players even earlier than when they come into college,” Silver said. “And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play at an elite level before they come into the NBA. On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger?”
Translation: the NBA no longer needs a relationship with the NCAA, nor does it want one. The FBI probe doesn’t just shine poorly on the NCAA–it runs up the ladder to the NBA. For instance, a number of current NBA players were named in the recent Yahoo! report, including Dennis Smith, Jr., Kyle Kuzma, and 2017 Number One Pick, Markelle Fultz. Smith reportedly received $73,500 in loans from an agent, while Kuzma and Fultz received, $16,000 and $10,000 respectively.
With the possibility of the G-League as the new proving ground for the game’s next stars, the NBA is taking ownership of basketball. Instead of heading to college for a year, young stars with enough talent to play professional basketball right away will enter the draft, play in the G-League (potentially under a two-way contract) and have their rights bargained for under the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Instead of participating in the current NCAA myth of amateurism, these young men will be able to focus solely on their athletic development, all while maximizing their financial value through player contracts and endorsement deals.
What does this do for the NBA? It allows nearly full control of its product and keeps the FBI out of its locker rooms. Better yet, it will enable the G-League to serve as the true farm system for the NBA that develops players into next generation superstars. It is easy to envision G-League attendance and viewership skyrocketing when McDonald’s All-Americans are playing in their league, rather than in March Madness.
What does this do for the NCAA? The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is the emphasis on team basketball: a good team often beats a one-man show (e.g. in 2016, Number One Pick Ben Simmons’ LSU Tigers did not even make the dance, while the winning Villanova Wildcats sent no players to the draft that year). While money will always be a part of March Madness, the absence of so many NBA prospects from college basketball could cure the inherent pay for play culture. With elite prospects in the G-League or an academy, agents will be less tempted to meddle in college ball because the meal tickets aren’t there anymore. Accordingly, this system could enable college basketball to be the ideal amateur college basketball that so many seem to want to protect.
For now, there is a lot to be excited about for those who seek reform of college basketball from the NBA Commissioner’s commentary alone. (Football is an entirely different story, and on its own for now.). Adam Silver is a leader who is willing to openly recognize when his organization needs to change, but more importantly, he is willing to act. In a time when the FBI and the US Attorneys are as big a part of the March Madness storylines as the Cinderellas breaking tournament droughts, maybe it is time for Mark Emmert and the NCAA to follow Silver’s lead.