“March Madness” is Year-Round for the NCAA

Where Selection Sunday signals the official beginning of March Madness, two years’ worth of FBI investigations and indictments for bribery, fraud, and money laundering show that the NCAA’s madness is (and has always been) year round.

As college basketball fans across the country will be glued to their TVs and smartphones this evening waiting to see where their team falls in the bracket, the storylines coming into this year’s NCAA Tournament are as much about the faults in the NCAA’s governance model as they are about the product on court.  While the NCAA’s product is must-see television, there can also be no question . that there are serious cracks in the NCAA’s armor.

  • Coaches are going to jail and pay-for play isn’t going anywhere. Three men are going to prison in the first round of indictments stemming from the FBI’s investigation into the pay-for-play underbelly of college basketball.  Three of the four assistant coaches implicated in the scandal have already pled guilty and are awaiting sentencing.  Amid all this, LSU recently suspended head coach Will Wade as Yahoo! reported hearing Wade bragging on tape that he had made a “strong offer” to secure a recruit.  
  • Preserving draft value > school loyalty? Duke standout Zion Williamson’s Nike sneaker blew up in the middle of a game against arch-nemesis UNC that resulted in the likely #1 overall lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft spraining his knee and missing a number of games.  Immediately after the game, critics were calling for Williamson to stop playing altogether to preserve his draft value in the same way Nick Bosa, the likely #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, withdrew entirely from Ohio State in the middle of the season to rehab himself in order to maximize his own draft value in the pros.
  • Scholarship caps are just the start of “legal” pay-for-play. This will be the last year of the current scholarship system for Division I football and men’s and women’s basketball players, pursuant to Judge Claudia Wilken’s holding that any academically-related scholarship restrictions are now a federal antitrust violation under Section I of the Sherman Act.  This ruling, which was a small victory for the student-athletes, is likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and potentially the United States Supreme Court, in the hopes these appellate courts will overrule Judge Wilken’s restrictions on compensation entirely.  Check out Professor Nellie Drew’s article, What the Latest NCAA Decision Misses, for a deeper dive.
  • “Operation Varsity Blues”, revealed another bribery scandal involving college sports, except this time, instead of coaches paying parents and recruits to commit to a school to pursue an athletic career, parents were paying coaches to boost the academic profile of their children by labeling them athletic recruits, so the children could attend the school and not play sports.  The irony is as incredible as the title.  Check out my initial take on the investigation in FBI: “Hey, NCAA, You’re Still Pretty Bad at This”.

Any athletics governance model is going to have its shortcomings and its fair share of bad PR: the key is minimizing the damage.  A large part of minimizing the damage, however, is embracing reform — something the NCAA refuses to do.  To this point, the NCAA has stood firm on its definition of amateurism, and relied on individuals like Sister Jean to prove that its system is worth saving.  Judge Wilken’s decision preserved the NCAA for the time being by keeping the student-athletes amateur.

The issue with the NCAA’s approach and Judge Wilken’s decision, however, is that the NCAA and its schools are only getting wealthier.  As the money flows into the NCAA’s billion-dollar industry, it is only a matter of time before the next scandal is unearthed.  The money has to go somewhere, and we’re already in an era of seven-figure assistant coaching salaries at the Power 5 level.  For me, this means that schools will continue to seek a competitive edge over the others by luring recruits with payments (cash, in-kind, you name it–coaches are creative).

What is more, the NCAA has proven it is incapable of governing its most powerful institutions.  As the NCAA touts that its institutions must adhere to its foundational concept of amateurism, the only incentive these institutions have to enforce the rules is the fear of an FBI investigation.  At what point do the schools who readily disobey the NCAA and its sham amateurism model simply decide they no longer need the organization, nor want the criminal implications that come from paying players (who deserve to be paid)?

You can’t commit a crime for wire fraud or bribery when players are legally paid.  FBI investigations and indictments go away at the same time “amateurism” does.  The question remains as to when the Power 5 realizes this.  If these schools break away, it will leave the NCAA to govern the schools who actually follow its amateurism model.

Photo Credit: The Sporting News

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