This story appears in the Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
A year has now passed since last Sept. 26, when the sports world awoke to unseasonably consequential college basketball news. Early that morning the FBI arrested 10 individuals, including four Division I assistant coaches, on charges of bribery and fraud related to cash payments made to recruits’ families. The actions outlined in the charges weren’t terribly surprising—heck, Blue Chips came out 24 years ago. Still, fans steeled themselves for a season of further revelations and tumult. Many also speculated that the divergent tugs of education and capitalism had finally torn the NCAA’s concept of the student-athlete asunder.
The news breaks have been slow since then, but the fallout has been considerable. Louisville fired Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino for his role in recruiting Brian Bowen, whose family allegedly received $100,000 from Adidas to sign with the Cardinals. Bowen transferred to South Carolina, but the NCAA declared him ineligible for 2018–19; he will instead play professionally in Australia. A handful of other players reneged on their commitments to schools caught up in the FBI probe, which didn’t make national news but will change the championship picture. Point guard Jahvon Quinerly (now at Villanova) and forward Shareef O’Neal (UCLA) both decided not to play for Arizona after assistant coach Emanuel (Book) Richardson was arrested and charged with five felonies as part of the investigation. (He is awaiting trial.)
Many expected Arizona coach Sean Miller to be dismissed after a February ESPN report alleged that he had been recorded in 2016 discussing a payment for forward Deandre Ayton, but Miller’s contract was merely amended to dock him $1 million if he is criminally charged.
Yet changes to the system that birthed all of this—one that can turn paying a teenager to play basketball into a potential federal crime—have been merely incremental. In April, an NCAA-appointed committee headed by Condoleezza Rice announced a package of nonbinding recommendations that were oddly preoccupied with the NBA’s changing its draft-entry rules.
Last month the NCAA made tweaks to the spring and summer recruiting schedule, but those will go unnoticed except by the scene’s participants and wonks. It also accepted the Rice committee’s advice by allowing basketball players to join baseball and hockey players in having permission to work with agents. But those eligible for this benefit are limited to 1) incoming freshmen who have been designated “elite senior prospects” by USA Basketball and 2) underclassmen who declare for the draft and get invited to the NBA’s combine but are not selected, which rarely happens. (These undrafted underclassmen will now be permitted to return to school.) In the process, the NCAA excluded those not ticketed for the NBA but who want to gauge pro opportunities overseas, as well as those not part of USA Basketball—a body reportedly rankled by not having been consulted in the NCAA’s decision to bestow on it the power to determine who is agent-eligible.
And so we sit on the verge of a season with a game largely unchanged from the one that was supposedly imploding a year ago. Still unaddressed are the core economic realities and motivations fueling the black market, so simple any student-athlete being compensated with Economics 101 credits could explain it: The players have a value to schools, coaches, boosters, communities and shoe companies that is drastically out of line with what they can receive in return.
Perhaps each of these changes is just a step in the inevitable march toward larger reform—a continuation of the past decade’s gradual easing of various arcane restrictions. Serving cream cheese on bagels is now acceptable; blocking an athlete who wants to transfer to another school is still not. More change could come this month when the class-action lawsuit brought by former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston and former Cal center Justine Hartman against the NCAA and 11 major conferences is heard in Oakland. Alston and Hartman contend that the NCAA’s capping of scholarship value is equivalent to suppressing market competition. There is a chance the outcome in this case will have more direct and wide-ranging results than the headline-grabbing results from the FBI sting.
As much as the NCAA has lobbied for the NBA to abolish its age minimum of 19 for draft eligibility, the change would likely have less effect on illicit payments than many hope: The suitors for elite high school prospects would then include the NBA, increasing colleges’ needs to offer financial benefits as well.
Of course, it is worth keeping in mind that a year ago there was no inkling that college basketball was on the brink of significant change. We may soon learn we’re not so much a year past one bombshell than a short time away from another. Maybe that will be the true wake-up call.