Last night we learned that the NCAA has once again done something narrowly consistent yet broadly and irredeemably idiotic, suspending Texas point guard Myck Kabongo for the season. It seems the sophomore was less than truthful when the NCAA asked him about his dealings with agent Rich Paul and a trip to Cleveland last spring, one where Kabongo worked out with a professional trainer.
The fact that talking to or even having an agent, traveling to Cleveland, and participating in a workout are all perfectly licit activities has once again eluded the NCAA. To busy people with mortgages and kids, this kind of thing is, of course, beneath trivial. And I know from personal experience that the NCAA is staffed by exceptionally bright and well-intentioned busy people who do indeed have mortgages and kids. Yet somehow the organization as a whole lacks this essential perspectival flywheel. How these two undeniable truths can both be equally true is a paradox worthy of Michael Lewis if not Chekhov, but there it is.
Mind you, just because Kabongo has furnished the latest occasion for the NCAA to display its unique brand of silliness doesn’t make him an ideal victim. He’s been more inconvenienced than victimized. Kabongo knew the silly rules going in, and, anyway, his “punishment” is that, should he choose to avail himself of the opportunity, he’ll continue to get a free ride at one of our nation’s most outstanding universities while he prepares for a fantastically lucrative career in professional basketball.
My stake in this centers not on Kabongo, who will be fine, but on the NCAA tournament. It’s surpassingly close to perfect the way it is, but whenever the NCAA does something Kabongo-level stupid I worry that the major-conference programs will at long last say, “We’re done here.” I could envision the FBS-level programs forming their own postseason basketball tournament, one where the participants set and enforce their own standards of academic eligibility, throw the RPI in the trash, and smile, as does reality, on the otherwise innocuous boundary between amateurism and professionalism.
It could happen, and with the suddenness of the Big East collapsing. A tournament where Cinderella is drawn from the likes of Georgia Tech and UCLA is not my idea of March Madness. My preference would be that the NCAA wake up and realize they can be made to look like Mike Aresco in a heartbeat.
BONUS sartorial note! I have a t-shirt I wear whenever the NCAA does something like this.
The trouble with amateurism isn’t that it’s being enforced by a peculiarly well-heeled organization. The trouble is that “enforcing” something as unthreatened and commonplace as amateurism is simply odd to begin with, like “enforcing” shyness, procrastination, or eye contact. Amateurism and professionalism coexist naturally and strike their own bargains every day of the week in non-NCAA settings.
I’m proud to announce I’ve discovered an “ideal of the amateur coach.” Compared to the thin and meager history behind that wobbly and dubious model of the amateur athlete, I can footnote my exciting new ideal something fierce, citing precedents dating back to Socrates. Henceforth coaches will receive no outside compensation, no endorsement deals, no fees from speaking engagements, nothing. Schools can pay for a coach’s room and board and a few other incidental expenses, but that’s it.