- Don't overlook the big picture of the new rules announced by the NCAA this week, which is that movements toward real change in the athletes' favor clearly have momentum.
The responses to the basketball rule changes the NCAA announced Wednesday generally fell into two camps.
From the people who didn’t read the fine print: WHOA! PLAYERS CAN HAVE AGENTS AND CAN COME BACK IF THEY DIDN’T GET DRAFTED!
From the people who believe anything the NCAA does is inherently evil: THEY’VE KICKED THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD AGAIN. WHEN WILL THEY ACTUALLY ADDRESS THE REAL ISSUE?
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the NCAA’s Board of Governors and Division I Board of Directors did address agents and the draft. They said that once the NBA and NBA player’s association ditch the league’s age limit—which will happen in a few years—that players identified as elite senior prospects by USA Basketball will be allowed to have agent representation. Within hours, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a Woj Bomb on this prong of the plan when he reported that sources within USA Basketball neither sought out nor agreed to accept this evaluation duty. And yes, certain underclassmen who go undrafted would be allowed to return to school. They must be invited to the combine and then go undrafted. Spoiler alert: Underclassmen invited to the combine rarely go undrafted.
And yes, the new rules fail to address the elephant on the court. Nearly all of the issues exposed by the FBI investigation into college basketball could be mitigated by allowing a more open market for the services of college athletes. The black market exists because the NCAA, a cartel made up of a group of competitors that conspires to cap labor costs in that particular market, helped create it.
But to cling to either extreme misses the big picture. The rules aren’t nearly as sweeping as the headline-only readers would have you believe, but they also aren’t nothing. The hamfisted way they were passed—maybe give USA Basketball a heads-up—isn’t shocking. Once the Justice Department began dropping indictments 11 months ago, the heads of the NCAA and the power conferences agreed they had to do something, and quickly. In April, NCAA president Mark Emmert said new rules would be coming before the next college basketball season began. By setting that PR-driven deadline, the NCAA and schools guaranteed this would be a bunch of half measures.
But if defenders of the status quo believe those half measures will protect the system, they're wrong. The schools did indeed try to kick the can down the road to maintain the appearance of vigilance, but in the process, they booted the can onto an entirely different street. And that street ultimately will lead to a system that allows athletes to share more in the money flowing into the highest levels of college football and college basketball.
Why? Because the NCAA and schools just opened doors that will never be closed—only opened wider. When I wrote seven years ago about why big-time college sports should adopt the Olympic model to allow marketable stars to make what they’re worth while still keeping a system that provides a college education as the base level of compensation, the idea of any college basketball players or recruits being allowed to hire agents seemed impossible. Yes, baseball and hockey players could have “advisors”—who happened to be agents who also represent pro baseball and hockey players. But those sports make little money at the college level. Football and men’s basketball fund the enterprise. Changes to the rules in those sports might affect the salaries of the coaches and administrators, so those coaches and administrators had a serious incentive to keep those players as far away as possible from competent professional representation. But changes in baseball and hockey—baseball players could were allowed to actually call their advisors agents beginning in 2016 and hockey players won that right earlier this year—helped prove the system wouldn’t implode if players trying to make professional decisions got advice from people who specialize in that sort of thing.
My rhetoric when writing about NCAA issues has softened over the years for a reason. There is an increasing air of inevitability that the players who bring in the bulk of the money will get more. The people who run college sports now realize the optics of any rule that doesn’t provide more power or more resources to the athlete will draw immediate public scorn. For most of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st, the media and public at large treated the people who make the rules like the good guys and viewed those rules as a noble attempt to enforce purity at this level of sports. In the past decade, more people have realized the rules—originally intended to create a parity that never has and never will exist—have become the mechanism by which the coaches and ADs protect their corners and line their own pockets. When millions get spent on lawyers because Ole Miss football recruits might have gotten a few thousand, the priorities are severely misaligned. The people in charge know this. And they know we know this. So changes have come. There was unlimited food. There were cost-of-attendance stipends. (These were forced by the federal court system. More on that in a bit.) As of this year, there are more equitable transfer rules.
Most of the people in charge know this was a great hustle while it lasted, but they’re aware they’ll have to adapt. There’s still money for them to make, but they might have to sacrifice a little more to the players to keep their checks flowing. Sure, there are true believers who think arbitrarily capping someone’s compensation is akin to saving the world, but those people are mostly old and on the verge of retirement.
That’s how these things usually work. One generation wants to operate the way it always did even as the world changes around it. The succeeding generation, meanwhile, grew up in the changed world and is more willing to meet the world on its terms. Eventually, that generation will grow crusty and intractable and another generation will have to adjust. The cycle rinses and repeats.
Few people want to risk losing even a penny of what they’ve got. So the people in charge of college sports aren’t going to truly address the biggest issue until they’re forced to. That day could be here soon. On Sept. 4 in Judge Claudia Wilken’s federal courtroom in Oakland, the NCAA and the conferences will have to defend their model again against an antitrust challenge when Jenkins v. NCAA begins. The NCAA lost in O’Bannon v. NCAA, which also was argued before Wilken but was far more limited in scope than this current case, which was brought by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who also represented NFL players in the suit that brought free agency to that league. It doesn’t make much practical sense to address the big question until the courts do. O’Bannon forced changes that gave athletes more. If this case goes a similar direction—and it’s quite possible since the NCAA’s attorneys have only a limited bag of mostly terrible arguments from which to draw—then the rules will change again.
The generation of true believers in the current system has almost completely aged out of the system. Between the courts and the natural evolution of things, change is coming. The changes announced Wednesday won’t usher in a new, more sensible age of college sports. They’re simply another step along the road. And now that the NCAA and schools have kicked their can onto that road, that change may come even sooner.