Hey NCAA, Are These Reforms Really A Game-Changer?*

The long-awaited NCAA response to the Rice Commission and the FBI’s continuing investigation into corruption in Division I basketball was announced today.  In the wake of the most recent scandal involving UNC football players who sold team gear (sneakers) and were subsequently disciplined, the NCAA pledged to “make profound and meaningful changes to college basketball”.  While Condoleeza Rice lauded these changes as “tremendous,” questions continue about the practical impact of the reforms.  Let’s review them one by one:

Flexibility for going pro and getting a degree.

a) Student-athletes are now allowed a total of fifteen visits to colleges between the end of their junior year of high school and the end of their collegiate eligibility.  Five can occur between August 1st and the end of their junior year of high school.  Five more can occur between the end of their junior year of high school and October 15th following their high school graduation.  The other five are helpful for transfers and those who take the community college route, but otherwise, well . . . not so helpful.  Will this help eliminate the multiple problems associated with unofficial visits?  It remains to be seen.

b) Underclassmen declaring for the NBA draft can return to school if not drafted.  BUT — only players invited to the NBA draft are eligible, which significantly reduces the pool of potential impact.

c) College players and “elite” high school prospects may now hire an agent certified by the NCAA.  Hurrah!  But — college players can only do so at the end of the season AND the agent can only provide expenses related to the draft.  If the player returns to school, he has to end the agency relationship.  So much for educated guidance.

d) College players who leave school after two years to play pro but return to complete their degree within ten years at the same institution receive tuition, fees and books.  Finally, an acknowledgement that they really are STUDENT-athletes.  This is long overdue, and a tacit recognition of the tremendous time and travel constraints that can make it all but impossible for a student-athlete to finish in four.

Minimize the influence of outside influences upon  high school recruits and college athletes. 

a) Certification of youth basketball events.  AAU basketball has long been problematic for the NCAA.  The effort to re-focus coaches to high school events instead is laudable.  In order for this reform to have teeth, however, the NCAA must be vigilant and relentless in enforcing this rule against the leagues sponsored by many of its shoe company sponsors…which are also the basis of the FBI’s continuing investigation.   Good luck with that.

b) Recruiting changes.  The reform encourages coaches to attend events approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations, while restricting recruiting at non-high school sponsored events.    See previous comment.

c) Reporting outside income.  Coaches and athletic staff must now report to their university president or chancellor athletics-related income in excess of $600.  This is in direct response to the shoe-related endorsement deals which are the basis of the current FBI investigation.      

d) Agreements with apparel companies.  Again, in an effort to address the ongoing Division 1 basketball crisis, the NCAA seeks to make apparel companies provide annual disclosures of existing agreements with coaches, obtain NCAA certification for youth basketball events and report potential NCAA rules violations.  That would seem to be like asking the wolf to guard the henhouse — or barring the barn door after the horses have been stolen.

Independent judgment for NCAA policy making, investigation and case resolution.

Complex cases can be referred to this process, in which a specialized Complex Case Unit will conduct investigations utilizing both outside independent personnel and NCAA investigators.   The case will then be referred to the Independent College Sports Adjudication Panel for resolution by five to fifteen personnel with no NCAA affiliation.  Problem:  the referral to this process is by request only.  It is NOT automatic.  Involving NCAA investigators by definition makes this less than independent.

Strengthen accountability and penalties.

All presidents and chancellors are to be personally accountable for program compliance, including cooperation with investigations.  Penalties include longer post-season bans (up to five years), head coach suspensions (beyond one year), and potential lifetime bans for coaches who violate rules.  Presidents are already designated as the individuals responsible for program compliance.  Adding chancellors to this mix doesn’t change much.  Is a chancellor really going to push harder on his/her president to ascertain compliance of specific rules?  Not likely.  As for coaches, well, if they are caught supervising a program with substantial violations they are likely to be fired anyhow.  This does nothing to change the win-at-any-cost mentality.  If you don’t win, you are fired.  If you win by cheating  and you aren’t caught, you survive.  This type of mentality is what created the culture that resulted in decades of sexual assault and abuse (see Baylor, Mizzou, Tennessee and Penn State, to name a few).  It’s not at all clear that this provision, or any of the others, will change that, which should be the NCAA’s first priority.

Accept information from another administrative body. 

Long hampered by its ability to issue subpoenas, compel testimony, etc., the NCAA is finally accepting information obtained via other sources without having to independently investigate.  This should help remove its handcuffs in investigations.  Whether that will make them more effective and efficient remains to be seen.

Overall:  this is a step forward for the NCAA, but it still ignores the elephant in the room.  When you have a ONE BILLION DOLLAR industry,  but still attempt to prevent the athletes who generate that revenue from sharing in the wealth, the issue of fair compensation must be addressed.  The reforms are a step in the right direction, but are they really a game-changer?  Only time will tell.

* UB Law Sports Forum Senior Editor and Co-Founder Joe Schafer, the author of numerous well-received “Hey NCAA” pieces, is on a well-deserved vacation following the bar exam.  In his absence, Professor and Co-Founder Nellie Drew takes her turn at the foul line on this important issue in the evolution of the NCAA’s approach to college basketball.

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