Next month the NCAA will bring a few dozen Division I college presidents and a handful of conference commissioners to Indianapolis to discuss the future of collegiate athletics. In honor of the occasion I will soon be offering my own turn-key proposal on what form that future should take. With any luck the assembled decision-makers will simply adopt my plan unanimously in the first five minutes of the meeting and adjourn to pedal-boats on the Central Canal. But before we get that far there’s a piece of old business that needs to be brought to the floor.
Last year I asked what good a student-athlete derives from the NCAA’s blanket prohibition on outside compensation. As it stands now and as it has stood for decades a huge star like, say, Harrison Barnes is forbidden from striking his own deals with an agent or advertiser. Why is that, exactly? What rewards — material, educational, spiritual, or otherwise — does Barnes reap specifically from this prohibition?
In May I repeated the question, and in response I heard from a lot of college basketball fans who were worried that lifting this prohibition would result in a competitive advantage for programs with free-spending and nefarious boosters. The hoops fans that I heard from fretted that such boosters would find ways to buy players and stockpile rosters, whether by posing as strangely well-paying advertisers or simply by taking advantage of a system where it’s already accepted that some players will be receiving some money on some occasions.
I’ll cop to one count of being unable to predict the future with complete confidence and accuracy, but I do have to wonder whether this particular fear is somewhat overblown. Here are my grounds for wondering, in order of importance:
Nefarious boosters will prove to be imperfect evaluators of talent — like everyone else.
Everyone knew that Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, and John Wall would be pretty good at basketball, even before those guys had played a minute in college. But not every recruit is Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, or John Wall. We simply don’t know with certainty, in July of 2011, whom we’ll be praising to the skies come April. And once we walk that horizon back a year or two or three, our uncertainty is near-total. In any given year nefarious boosters for Team X will have only three or four or five open roster slots to be nefarious about. Those boosters will become well acquainted with the murkiness that besets even the finest talent evaluators: trying to project how a player will perform against D-I competition two years from now based on watching preternaturally talented 17 year-olds play against competition of varying and mysterious quality.
It’s everything. Even the No. 1-ranked player in the country at a given position will choose his college with an eye toward which player his prospective head coach has returning at that same position. Any player that believes he might have a shot at the NBA someday (i.e., all players) knows he needs playing time to show what he can do. And if the program that’s his first choice has already committed to another player of equal or higher recruiting buzz at the same position, an elite recruit will go elsewhere in a heartbeat. It has always been thus, and that’s not about to change.
Maybe when the NBA sorts out the current dispute between owners and players one-and-done will be a thing of the past, but for the time being it reshuffles the talent deck on an annual basis.
I have a hard time believing any program will be able to recruit much better than what coaches like John Calipari, Roy Williams, and Thad Matta are already doing, and those guys haven’t monopolized national titles. Or look through the other end of the same telescope. The only team to win back-to-back national titles in the 2000s has been Florida. The group of players that arrived in Gainesville as freshmen in the mid-aughts did so with relatively little fanfare. Just one of those Gators, Corey Brewer, was a McDonald’s All-American.
The new system wouldn’t be so very different.
Maybe allowing someone that has celebrated their 18th birthday to enter into contracts even if they play college basketball and even if the contract’s with an agent is just the right thing to do. Then again most recruits sign with a school before their 18th birthday.
No matter what reforms the NCAA enacts, there will continue to be programs that break the rules. And the NCAA will never be able to catch all the rule-breaking in real time. As a result it will always be vitally important that programs self-report their violations, and that the NCAA reward programs for doing so (relative to ones that don’t). But regarding the question of basketball’s competitive balance, I am not yet persuaded that allowing college players to exercise their contractual rights as legal adults would in and of itself have much of an impact.