The NCAA Amateurism Sham

The news keeps getting worse.

The college basketball recruiting scandal that blew up in September with the FBI indictments of several assistant coaches and shoe company executives has spread to more than 20 schools, including some of the country’s iconic programs.

Duke. North Carolina. Michigan State. Kentucky.

It doesn’t get any bigger than that.

As noted in a previous post, most of us involved in managing or covering college sports have known that this was going on for a long time. But none of us could prove it and none of us knew how widespread it was.

Then, last Friday, Yahoo Sports published documents from the FBI investigation that implicated 12 schools for potential impermissible benefits to players and families, including the four noted above. Another seven schools appeared on the expense accounts of a prominent sports agent (Christian Dawkins) seeking reimbursement for money paid to college and high school players and their families.

Current players at seven schools were implicated, including two leading candidates for national player of the year—Duke’s Wendell Carter and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges. Also implicated was the top pick in last year’s NBA draft, Washington’s Markelle Fultz.

Perhaps the biggest bombshell was the reported FBI wiretap of Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment to one of last year’s top recruits, Deandre Ayton, now a freshman star for the Wildcats. Miller’s comments were made in a phone call with Dawkins, during which Miller apparently instructed Dawkins to deal with him directly about money.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former Duke star, commented that this was a “career-ending thing” for Miller and that he couldn’t imagine Miller ever working in college basketball again.

I’m inclined to agree.

I’d also have to agree with Bilas that it’s getting harder and harder to justify the fact that the NCAA, conferences and schools are making billions of dollars—even assistant coaches are making millions—while players receive no compensation other than tuition, room and board.

Alarmingly, the same thing is starting to happen in college football and baseball, with third party agents, advisors, club coaches and seven-on-seven camp directors infiltrating the games.

“We’re asking players to be virginal, when this entire system is awash in money,” Bilas says. “If we’re going to sell these players for billions of dollars, they should be allowed to share in that without feeling like they’re committing a federal crime.”

He has a point. The NCAA now makes over a billion dollars a year from televising a basketball tournament starring unpaid players.

As much as I love college athletics and the concept of amateurism, on many campuses it’s become a sham. It’s all about money now. And players, frankly, are treated more like employees than students. Their lives are consumed with practice, games, conditioning, and travel. They can’t take classes that conflict with practice. They can’t spend a quarter overseas. To satisfy the demands of TV partners paying obscene rights fees, they must go on the road to play games virtually every night of the week, with no regard to missed class time.

A national commission headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making recommendations to the NCAA on how to fix this problem.

It’s a tall order. The fact is, the genie is out of the bottle. Way out.

How can you turn back the clock? How do you tamp down a huge multi-billion dollar business enterprise and return to a simpler, purer time when student-athletes represented institutions of higher learning? When one game a week was on television, when there were no sponsorship signs in the stadium, when coaches made less than chemistry professors?

Can you tear up the media rights contracts and sponsorship agreements, take the games off television, remove logos from jerseys and sneakers, stop the facilities arms race, and inform coaches that they’re going to make $500,000 instead of $5 million?

I don’t think so. We’re too far down the road. Way too far.

There are no easy answers here. But, for starters, we need to eliminate the “one and done” rule in college basketball and require players to either sign with the NBA out of high school or play at least three years, similar to what we do in football and baseball. We need to re-consider compensating players for the use of their name, image and likeness. We need to consider allowing them—like “amateur” Olympic athletes—to sign endorsement deals and earn a bonus for winning championships.

Does it make any sense that Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky can make over $100,000 for winning Olympic medals, and remain eligible to swim for her school, yet can’t make a cent for winning an NCAA title? That a school can take $280 million from a shoe company, but a player can’t take a few bucks for signing an autograph? That a coach can make a fortune for wearing a set of logoed headphones, but a player can’t receive royalties when his jersey is sold in the campus bookstore?

No, it doesn’t.

The bottom line here is this: unless we find a way to give the players at least a modest share of the riches they generate—legally—the corruption and the abuses are going to continue.

And the swamp will get deeper and wider.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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