In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, NCAA president Mark Emmert was asked about a policy that I have long advocated: allowing college athletes to sign endorsement deals and agreements for representation with agents. This is a step that I refuse to call a “reform.” It is instead a benign yet necessary and inexplicably overdue concordance with non-North Korean reality.
Just imagine the compliance issues. Two universities that happen to be in the same state want a young man to come play football for them. One says, “Well, you know, we can’t provide you with any money, but the bank down the street we know is looking for somebody to endorse their bank.” And the other school says, “Yeah, but we have a car dealership, and they want to endorse you.” Before you know it, you’ve got this war going on between institutions over who can throw the most money at some youngster. You’ve converted the whole system from a collegiate model to a pay-for-play one. You’ve just disguised the money.
Emmert doubtless overstates the eagerness of banks in the current economic climate to shower funds on 18-year-olds who may or may not reflect credit upon their enterprise. One great thing about allowing this kind of activity is precisely that there will be an immediate onset of sobering marketing screw-ups. Big ones. Not every McDonald’s All-American pans out, many underclassmen engage in behaviors unbecoming to a product endorser, and you’ll do your Ford dealership no favors locally by prominently featuring the face of an underperforming and/or carousing player, even if he was a five-star.
Allowing legal adults to sign contracts as legal adults, even though they happen to play college sports, is about to happen, the only questions being when and why on earth it’s taken so long. Emmert thinks this means “pay-for-play,” but we already pay for play, the only issue being how much.
Emmert’s preference for the status quo is shared, somewhat ironically, by many college basketball fans who have no problem bashing the NCAA but nevertheless worry about a strange new Hobbesian world where McDonald’s All-Americans will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. I too treasure college basketball, and I don’t suppose I’d be terribly happy in a strange new Hobbesian world where McDonald’s All-Americans are auctioned off to the highest bidder. That’s why I’d be fine with the NCAA requiring that athletes complete a couple semesters of college in good academic standing before they sign with that advertiser and/or agent. That being said, we’d do well to preface any discussion of competitive fairness with a frank acknowledgment of the extreme talent imbalance that’s always existed in college basketball.
Basically there are three “national” teams, in the sense that the nation’s best recruits compete head-to-head for the honor of playing for them: Kentucky, North Carolina, and Duke. In any given two- or three-year span those three are customarily joined talent-wise by a team like, say, Kansas, Connecticut, UCLA, or Michigan State. Happily, every player has an insatiable hunger for playing time, and even these heavyweights, as formidable as they are, cannot corner the market on talent. Not only is it possible for a Butler or a VCU to happen, but even Duke won a national title in 2010 with zero representation in the ensuing NBA draft. (Not even in the second round!) Those are the essentials, they have been for decades, and those essentials won’t change if players are allowed to function like every other sentient person their age.
Besides, anyone who fears a coming era of pernicious talent oligopolies hasn’t been paying enough attention to the present. Others have already pointed out that Saturday’s game between North Carolina and Kentucky featured seven of the top 14 players on the oracular mock draft board at DraftExpress.com. Meaning 50 percent of 2012’s projected lottery picks are concentrated within 0.6 percent of Division I. Excuse me if I don’t wring my hands in panic at the dawning new age of talent imbalance.
If I were asked to name the best college players of the last five years, I’d tap many of the usual suspects: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, DeJuan Blair, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Williams, Jimmer Fredette, etc. None of those guys won a national title, and just two (Wall and Cousins) played for what I’ve called a “national” team. UCLA under John Wooden has long been held to represent the absolute pinnacle of egregious talent-hoarding — what with that nefarious Sam Gilbert character running amok and all — but even the golden-age Bruins, upon closer inspection, merely amassed talent about as well as Duke or Carolina do today. The givens of the situation feel very durable, incorrigible, and immutable. Talent distributes itself across national programs according to a player’s preference and in response to available playing time at a given player’s position.
Emmert’s on the wrong side of history on this one, and if you’re a college basketball fan there’s nothing to fear in his coming forensic defeat.