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NCAA President Mark Emmert Calls for Change in Light of FBI Investigation, but Will This Time Be Different?

In light of the FBI investigation, will this finally be the time that schools and the NCAA embrace a more common-sense approach to regulating men’s basketball and football?

SAN ANTONIO — For years, we’ve poked fun at the glacial pace the NCAA and its member schools employ when faced with challenges that might require changes to the rules. For example, there was the time in 2008 when the schools decided to better define what “nutritional supplements” schools could provide athletes beyond the three meals a day in their scholarship meal plans. That round of legislation turned the schmearing of cream cheese into an NCAA violation, and it took six more years before coming to the simple (and correct) conclusion that schools should be allowed to provide unlimited food to athletes if those schools chose.

The reason for this pace is fairly logical. The NCAA’s rules are made by hundreds of schools, and each school wants a set of rules that best fits its budget and competitive desire. This tends to create a series of bureaucratic logjams. 

But with COLLEGE BASKETBALL IN CRISIS*, NCAA president Mark Emmert and the chair of the NCAA’s Division I board of directors promised swift action to correct the ills exposed by the FBI’s investigation into college hoops.

Just as soon as they get the report from their blue-ribbon panel.

*You and I may not consider shoe companies or agents giving money to people for being good at basketball a crisis (because it isn’t), but the schools and conferences apparently find capitalism disturbing when they aren’t the ones engaging in it. The fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has decided to carry water for the NCAA in this case only serves to make the “crisis” seem more dire.

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Perhaps we should be careful what we poke fun at. The NCAA when hamstrung by red tape has its share of issues, but given the decision-making in the past, the idea of the NCAA and schools riding a rocket docket toward substantive change seems fraught with peril as well. But maybe, just maybe, the schools and the NCAA will take this opportunity to embrace a more common-sense approach to men’s basketball. And, while they’re at it, football.

The aforementioned panel is run by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and features luminaries from around the world of college sports. The group has spent the entire season trying to figure out how to keep shoe companies (which aren’t subject to the NCAA’s rules) and agents (who aren’t subject to the NCAA’s rules) from paying AAU coaches (who aren’t subject to the NCAA’s rules) for access to players (who are the only people in this equation subject to the NCAA’s rules) or their parents (who kind of are but also kind of aren’t subject to the NCAA’s rules) or handlers (who definitely aren’t subject to the NCAA’s rules). It will deliver its recommendations to the Division I board on April 25, and then the board intends to ram through rules changes in time for the tip-off of next season in November.

“It’s really my goal to assure our fans and others concerned about the NCAA and about college athletics that we are committed as the governing board of Division I to rapid and sure action on the recommendations,” said University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler, the DI board’s chairman. 

Just as soon as it finds out what those recommendations are.

“We are poised to act with efficiency and in a nimble and quick way,” Kaler said Thursday at the Alamodome. “Nimble and quick may describe some of our NCAA athletes on the court. It doesn’t often describe this organization. This will be different.”

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A self-deprecating NCAA is a welcome switch from the previously smug organization that has only been moved to meaningful action in the recent past by federal court decisions (the ban on cost-of-attendance stipends became illegal once the NCAA got whipped in O’Bannon vs. NCAA) and terrible PR (Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier made the schools look silly with their food rules by speaking out during a tournament that makes $770 million a year for the NCAA in television revenue, hence the unlimited meals rule change).

And Emmert himself has also softened his rhetoric. He isn’t dumb, and he has to be tired of getting used by schools as a heat shield as coaches and athletic directors try to protect their slices of the revenue pie from the scary 18- to 22-year-olds. Thursday, Emmert made it clear that the schools (not him) are the ones who don’t want to move to something closer to the Olympic model, which might help mitigate some of the issues in men’s basketball and football, and might have kept the NCAA and the conferences from yet another court battle they probably won’t win. 

The Olympic model is the only workable solution if the schools don’t want athletes to become pure employees. I wrote about it back in 2011, but the idea has picked up a lot more mainstream support in recent years. Of course, it may be too late for that now given the news Wednesday out of the Northern District of California.

Judge Claudia Wilken, who presided over the O’Bannon case, issued an order declaring that the NCAA and some of the conferences will have to defend the rules against players receiving more than tuition, room and board (and now a cost-of-attendance stipend) in open court in a case brought by a plaintiff group that includes former Clemson cornerback Martin Jenkins and former Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes. NCAA and conference attorneys argued that most of the points had already been argued in O’Bannon, and Wilken vehemently disagreed. The case is scheduled to go to trial in December—though it could be delayed—meaning whatever magical fixes the DI board plans to implement from the blue-ribbon commission’s report may only be in effect a year before the schools have to blow up their athlete compensation model and start from scratch.

But let’s assume wholesale changes don’t happen so quickly. What can the schools do to rein in the issues brought to light by the FBI investigation? The Pac-12 issued a set of recommendations this month, and some are absolutely worth exploring:

·End the concept of one-and-done.

This isn’t worth exploring because the schools and the NCAA can’t control the NBA’s age limit. But something happened Thursday that might help the schools on this front. Darius Bazley, a 6’9” forward committed to Syracuse, told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday that he intends to bypass college and play next season in the NBA’s G League. That way he’ll get a (relatively small) salary but can take all the shoe money he can get. If he’s successful, and this appears to be a viable path for players who want to turn pro out of high school, this could be a positive development for the NBA—which doesn’t want to change the age limit, but does want talent in the G League—and for college basketball. Taking the top five to 10 players out of the system wouldn’t hurt the on-court product much, but it would reduce the number of college players who started getting paid by agents and shoe companies as high schoolers. 

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·Take control of and regulate the recruitment process.

The NCAA is already supposed to be regulating the recruitment process, but it can’t when grassroots teams and shoe companies run all the tournaments that feature the best players. One potential tweak is to ban college coaches from attending these events and create regional combines that mimic the Peach Jam or the AAU national championships. This wouldn’t eliminate outside influences, but it would allow the NCAA to exert some control over something it has no control of now.

·Provide access to professional agents and strengthen education.

This is a big one. If a player can sign with an agent and not lose his eligibility, it would help police a lot of the activity the NCAA is trying to control—especially if the NCAA licensed agents in a manner similar to the players’ associations in the NFL and NBA. If an agent had a star basketball or football player on his/her roster, that agent would chase off the shady financial advisors and other agents to protect the business. If the NCAA licensed the agents, any violation of a rule by one of the agents would amount to professional suicide because no player would sign with an agent not cleared by the NCAA. The NCAA already allows baseball and hockey players to get advice from agents. Why not do the same in the two revenue-generating sports?

“There's going to be need for us to modify what we’re responsible for and to move some things that are kind of under the table now up on top of the table and say, ‘Yeah, we know those things exist, so how do we manage them more effectively and make it work better for all parties?’” Emmert said. 

This might be the most sensible public comment Emmert has made in nearly eight years as the NCAA’s president. If he actually means it, maybe this time will be different.