College sports at the highest levels have never been pure, and everyone knows it. As for the amateur ideal, that never really existed, either. You're mad because you don't want major college sports to be different from what you grew up with (even though they already are). You think you're a purist, but you aren't. If you were a purist, you would rail against the forward pass in football, and you'd scream if they didn't have a jump ball after every basket in basketball. If you truly were a purist, you certainly wouldn't argue for the sanctity of the athletic scholarship. You would, like many schools in the 1920s, consider the athletic scholarship a base form of inducement to which only the slimiest institutions would stoop. You would want your college sports played the way they were at the turn of the 20th century -- by the white guys whose parents were wealthy enough to send them to an elite college.
College sports have undergone paradigm shifts before. The NCAA nearly ruptured in 1950 over the issue of pay-for-play. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ushered in the modern era when it declared the NCAA's control of football television rights to be an illegal monopoly. Now, schools that 30 years ago received less than $1 million a year from television can receive $20 million or more a year from the sale of television rights. Another shift is coming, and when the rules change, the governing body (bodies?) of college sports will need a new rulebook.
Preferably, that rulebook will be short. That way, everyone will understand the rules. Ignorance or confusion won't be acceptable excuses for misbehavior. The NCAA's enforcement arm will handle only a few critical crimes. That probably will please the NCAA's investigative unit, because most investigators didn't go to law school to count illegal text messages to 17-year-olds.
What follows isn't a complete rulebook, but it outlines the new rules in the most important areas. The complete rulebook shouldn't cover more than 50 pages; the current NCAA Division I manual checks in at 434 pages.
Schools would not be allowed to pay athletes beyond an actual-cost-of-attendance scholarship. Except at the very top of the food chain, schools can't afford to pay more than they already do. Plus, any pay-for-play system run through the schools would require the schools to continue to pay everyone -- from the star quarterback to the setter on the volleyball team -- equally. This is ludicrous. The setter on the volleyball team isn't worth what the star quarterback is worth. Plus, only a small fraction of the athletes at FBS schools are worth more on the open market than the value of their scholarships. But just because most computer programmers make a decent living doesn't mean Bill Gates shouldn't make more than the rest. He's special. Special athletes deserve a chance to realize their market value. So what if someone else was willing to pay these athletes?
Enter the Olympic model. The Olympics didn't disintegrate after the rules were amended to allow athletes to take outside endorsement deals. If not for the rule change, some of the best skiers, swimmers and runners might never have realized their Olympic dreams because they would have had to get real jobs to put food on the table. If Visa were willing to pay Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck $500,000 a year, who would that hurt? Allow athletes to take money from outside sources, and require the company paying the athlete to disclose the amount and the terms to the compliance department at the athlete's school. Athletes would be banned from accepting money from gambling entities -- as they are now -- but everything else would be fair game. This also would resolve many Title IX issues. Everyone would have the same opportunity, because anyone the marketplace considers valuable would get paid. If Notre Dame women's basketball player Skylar Diggins had been offered endorsement deals after Lil' Wayne wore her jersey during a concert in April, Diggins would be allowed to capitalize on her marketability.
What about boosters? If Bob's Tractors, which has a luxury box at Big State, wants to give Big State's starting left tackle an endorsement deal, that's fine. The argument against this is that the schools with the wealthiest donors would get all the best recruits. How would that be any different than what happens now? Except instead of a booster-funded team meeting room with Corinthian leather seats, some money would wind up in the player's pocket. Coaches would still have to properly evaluate talent, and if recent history has taught us anything, many of them have not honed that skill. Less wealthy schools would have just as much of a chance to win as they do now. There would be bidding wars for top recruits, but again, how would that be any different than what happens now? Under this system, it would happen in the open instead of in the shadows, and it wouldn't cost Big State any scholarships down the road.
Subsection A to Pay-for-play
When a school sells a jersey featuring a current player's number, the player receives five percent of the gross revenue from the sale of each jersey.
Subsection B to Pay-for-play
If an athlete chooses to take advantage of the opportunity to cash in, he or she must first pay back the value of his or her athletic scholarship before realizing a profit. Consider it a licensing fee.
Allow players to have agents. Instead of an agent task force, the NCAA would maintain an agent registry. Every agent who wants to represent a college athlete would have to be licensed -- for a fee, of course -- and any violations of the rules would result in a permanent revocation of said license. That would keep agents in line. Players don't want to get in trouble, so they'll be naturally inclined to sign with an agent the NCAA approves. An agent wouldn't risk losing a lead on a future star, so he would have a powerful incentive to follow the rules.
The agents could negotiate deals for the players. Since players are allowed to cut outside deals, the agents are allowed to provide money to their clients -- provided that money isn't tied to gambling.
A player caught gambling on sports of any kind -- even legally -- is permanently banned from competition. A coach caught gambling on sports of any kind is permanently banned from employment at any NCAA school. An official caught gambling on sports of any kind is permanently banned from working NCAA-sanctioned events. The punishments are harsh because they have to be. With all the other shadowy forces brought into the light, fixed games are the only scandal that could crush college sports. With money available elsewhere, the incentive to associate with gamblers should be minimal. But just in case, a few Draconian punishments should strengthen athletes' resolve.
Love National Signing Day? Too bad. It's gone. Every student who has entered the ninth grade -- the NCAA's definition of a "prospective student-athlete" -- is eligible to sign a National Letter-of-Intent. The only catch? Before the athlete signs, the school must pay for an official visit for the athlete and a parent or guardian. During this visit, school officials must explain the terms of the NLI.
Now, schools cheat by paying middlemen to ferry prospects on unofficial visits they couldn't otherwise afford. Ever wonder how a dirt-poor player from Miami takes unofficial visits to 12 different schools? Because someone paid for them. Meanwhile, coaches exacerbate the problem by tossing out triple-digit offers for a 25-man football class and then pressuring players to commit before their senior seasons begin. A coach would not be so quick to offer that scholarship to a high school sophomore if he knew it would take away one of his available scholarships for a signing class two years away. Plus, many athletic directors will want to see a glowing transcript and a qualifying standardized test score before they sign off on an early offer.
The NLI system also needs an overhaul. At the moment, the NLI is one of the worst contracts in America. It forbids a player from being recruited by other schools, but it doesn't force the school to give the player a scholarship. If a school oversigns, the player has no legal recourse, and nothing happens to the school. It's time the NLI got some teeth. Now, if a school signs an academically qualified player and doesn't deliver on the promised scholarship, it loses the right to participate in the NLI program for five years in the offending sport. That means if Tech U oversigns and can't deliver a scholarship to a player, for the next five years Tech U's recruits will remain on the open market until the moment they set foot in a classroom at Tech U.
These rules will put the teenager ahead of the multimillionaire coach. The system has been tilted in the other direction for far too long.
Subsection A to Recruiting Issues
The current NCAA Division I manual devotes nine pages to the rules that govern when and how coaches can contact recruits. The new rulebook will need one page and one chart.
Phone calls are unlimited. Have you tried to get a 16-year-old on the phone recently? They don't answer. Ever. They can dodge an annoying coach quite easily.
Text messages are unlimited. The NCAA currently bans the preferred method of communication for America's youth. Brilliant.
All other forms of communication are unlimited. This includes Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, Xbox live and any form of communication yet to be invented. Mark Zuckerberg rendered the NCAA's contact rules forever obsolete when Facebook tweaked its direct message function last year. Stop fighting, NCAA. If the kids want to talk to a coach, they will. If they don't, they won't.
The chart will feature the dates for each sport when in-person contacts and evaluations are allowed. For instance, football coaches -- including the head coach -- would be allowed to visit schools in May of each year to evaluate prospects. They also would be allowed to speak to prospects during those visits, because the current NCAA bump rule is stupid, impossible to enforce and never fails to inspire a brigade of amateur NCAA investigators to seek evidence of a scofflaw coach chatting up a recruit. Football coaches also would be able to visit high schools and recruits' homes in December and January. They also would be allowed unlimited in-person communication with recruits on their own college campus.
If a player wants to transfer to another Division I school, he or she may do so but must sit out one year of competition. This includes transfers within a conference. Coaches will not be allowed to block a player's release to another school. The athletes are people -- not property.
The graduate student exception would remain in effect. This is the best rule currently on the NCAA's books, and it deserves a place in the new rulebook. An athlete who has earned a bachelor's degree may transfer to another school for graduate school and play immediately.
If a school chooses to fire its coach, all players on that coach's team have until the start of the next semester to decide whether they want to remain or transfer with no penalty. This might slow the coaching revolving door -- or it might not. But at least it gives the athletes a say in their future.
All scholarships remain one-year, renewable deals. But should a coach decide to cut athletes to free up space for newer models, those athletes are eligible to transfer to any other school without penalty.
In May, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun -- who has had some recent NCAA trouble of his own -- kibitzed with reporters during the Big East's spring meetings. "Just give me some commandments to follow," Calhoun said. And he's correct. The NCAA has too many "major violations," and it has no middle ground between murder and jaywalking. So if major violations are going to be treated seriously, let's pick a few critical issues and enforce them with extreme prejudice. Don't worry about the rest. George Carlin had it correct. The fewer commandments, the better.
I No gambling.
II No academic fraud. (If you're an athlete, don't cheat on your schoolwork. If you're a coach, don't help your athletes cheat on their schoolwork.)
III No cheating. (No spying on other teams. No using ineligible players. This is common sense.)
IV No lying to the NCAA. (When all else fails, it's nice to have a catch-all.)
So what happens when a program gets popped for major violations? Now, the players who enroll at the school post-scandal suffer mightily. The new punishments might still hurt future players somewhat, but they'll be a more effective deterrent against further chicanery, and they'll probably result in house-cleaning at penalized schools. The new punishment formula is simple, and it doesn't include any postseason bans or scholarship reductions.
A school guilty of a major violation owes the NCAA a year's worth of athletic department revenue, payable over a 10-year period. So if Texas gets nailed, it owes $143 million. If Ohio State gets nailed, it owes $123 million. If Vanderbilt gets nailed -- hey, stranger things have happened -- it would owe $49.9 million.
These rules wouldn't cover every eventuality in the brave new world of college sports, but they would cover most of them. If something unexpected arose, certainly the NCAA would appoint a committee to study the feasibility of appointing a working group to discuss adding to the rules. After all, it's still the NCAA.