AN FBI INVESTIGATION EXPOSED CORRUPTION THAT DECADES OF SNEAKER COMPANY MONEY AND ARCHAIC NCAA RULES MADE THE PRICE OF DOING BUSINESS. CAN COLLEGE BASKETBALL REBOUND? ABSOLUTELY
IN SOME of the finest fantasy writing this side of Harry Potter, lawyers for the NCAA have argued in federal court filings in Oakland that antitrust suits brought by former athletes should be dismissed because the plaintiffs have not considered the value of a college education in their claims that NCAA schools have colluded to arbitrarily cap the value of the compensation athletes can receive. This education market, they claim, has just as much influence as the market for athlete labor when the players choose their schools.
We know that isn't the case after paperwork filed in another federal courthouse on the other side of the country last week showed that the most relevant market for some of the best college basketball recruits is the black market the NCAA's rules have created. On Sept. 26, Joon Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the arrests of 10 people in connection with two related fraud and corruption schemes. Said Kim, "The picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one—coaches at some of the nation's top programs taking cash bribes, managers and advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of a global sportswear company funneling cash to families of high school recruits."
While detailing the charges against four major college assistant coaches, two Adidas employees, an AAU program director and three others for their roles in the recruitment of basketball players, investigators exposed a world practically everyone knew existed. Decades of whispers from frustrated coaches and hamstrung NCAA investigators were confirmed thanks to wiretaps, recordings by undercover agents and the threat of federal prison time. How did Louisville secure a commitment from star recruit Brian Bowen? According to the feds, Adidas employees Jim Gatto and Merl Code agreed to give about $100,000 to Bowen's family in exchange for him to come to Louisville, a school Adidas pays ($160 million over 10 years) to wear its uniforms and shoes. The arrangement, according to the criminal complaints, also assumed that Bowen would sign with Adidas and work with Christian Dawkins (a recruiter for a sports management company) and financial adviser Munish Sood once he turned pro.
Originally a well-meaning set of restrictions intended to maintain parity in college sports, the NCAA's rules have become a laughingstock as revenue has risen in the marquee sports of football and men's basketball. The rules, which failed to create parity in the first place, wound up creating a need for middlemen who link apparel companies, schools, coaches and players. The market wants to give the players what it thinks they're worth, but they aren't supposed to take the money. Some do, though, and not before those middlemen wet their beaks.
Because the FBI and the Department of Justice won't always be there to help the NCAA make its case against coaches and players who break the rules, how can the NCAA combat the corruption exposed by the investigation? The simplest way is to stop vilifying the act of paying people for being good at sports and let athletes take money from whoever wants to pay them. If the market thinks Bowen is worth $100,000 beyond the value of his scholarship, let him have $100,000. (Or let him pay back his scholarship and keep any cash that's left over.) Of course, that's a bridge too far for most of the guardians of amateurism—many of whom have gotten rich thanks to rules that keep more of the money on the school side.
Still, there are steps that schools and the NCAA could take to keep athletes away from youth coaches who would sell them to the highest bidder or college assistants who would peddle them to shady agents or financial advisers in exchange for kickbacks.
First, as officials in the Power Five conferences have discussed in recent years, let players have agents. The best college baseball players effectively have them. (High school players selected in the MLB amateur draft can hire agents to negotiate a contract with the team that drafted them without sacrificing eligibility should they fail to successfully agree to a contract.) That sport hasn't collapsed under the weight of corruption, and neither would basketball or football.
Why would bringing the athlete-agent relationship into the light help players, schools and the NCAA?
• Players would have the option to be represented by agents who choose to follow the rules rather than by ones willing to break them. The biggest agencies don't need to slip athletes a few hundred bucks at a time, and the agency and the player would benefit more in the long term by focusing on the player's career. True, schools and coaches would have to deal with people representing the players' interests, but they already do that—those people are called parents. An agent with multiple clients is far less likely than a proud mom to harass a coach about playing time.
• The NCAA would have an opportunity to exert some authority over a group it hasn't been able to control. Agents would have to pay to join an NCAA registry and agree to cooperate with NCAA investigations. Any violations of NCAA rules or lack of cooperation with an investigation would get the agent tossed. Because players would most likely choose agents in good standing, an agent who broke the rules would risk professional suicide. That's a powerful incentive.
Perhaps this is all too much with the news of the FBI investigation so fresh. Perhaps it will take more charges against coaches, agents and executives to spur meaningful change. But this is going to have a long tail. It's probably going to get much, much worse. So maybe now is the time to start seeking solutions.
STOP VILIFYING THE ACT OF PAYING PEOPLE FOR BEING GOOD AT SPORTS AND LET ATHLETES TAKE MONEY FROM WHOEVER WANTS TO PAY THEM.
Amount allegedly funneled to the family of a high school basketball player to persuade him to sign with Louisville
Value of the 10-year deal Louisville signed with Adidas in August
Amount Pitino earned in 2015, the most among Division I basketball coaches
Number of people arrested last week in an FBI probe