The NCAA is in the news for the same two reasons the NCAA ever makes the news: fiscal controversy and the tournament. Before March Madness distracts us entirely, perhaps we can address the insanity of the money side.
There’s one group involved in this imbroglio that actually needs help: high school kids. The NBA and its players association are well taken care of, certainly financially but also legally and socially by a host of high-paid advocates; the NCAA is a multi-billion-dollar cabal whose administration is constantly concerned with its own well-being; but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young “student-athletes” caught in what liberally would be described as friendly crossfire.
It’s not that the NCAA or the NBA or the Players’ Association are acting maliciously toward our nation’s youth, it’s that none of them have seemed willing to make a single sacrifice in the interest of development.
Arbitrary altruism is not, as it turns out, a common practice in big business.
The pro league’s concerns are about quality of play — the so-called one-and-done rule is an attempt by the NBA to reduce the quantity of unplayable teenagers on the ends of benches, and to divorce itself from blame if things go bad. Not an admirable position, but an understandable one.
The NCAA’s concerns are, as they have always been, about lining the pockets of already wealthy white men and bolstering already substantial school endowments — despicable, yes, and not likely to change by choice. The problem is that when the only actual function of an organization is high-level (legal) money-laundering, there is no incentive for them to clean up their act. If they did, what would be left?
The place where the rubber meets the road is in public relations: The NBA is reportedly working on changes to the one-and-done, which signals a belief that the basketball world at-large is demanding it. And if it’s a PR battlefield, Steve Kerr is taking a position on the front lines.
The Warriors head coach spoke on this issue as he speaks on many of the social controversies of our time — with a thoughtful eloquence and an eye toward common sense.
“One of the things the NCAA needs to look at is, if a kid signs with an agent and he doesn’t get drafted, welcome him back,” Kerr said. “Why not? What’s the harm? We talk about amateurism and all this stuff, but if you’re truly trying to do what’s right for the kid, and the kid declares for the draft and doesn’t get drafted, you know what? Welcome him back. Do something good for the kids.”
On the most basic and literal level, Kerr is making a worthwhile point given the news of the last month. We’ve always been aware of the seedy side of college hoops, and only Dick Vitale and the most naive basketball fans would ever have told you that kids weren’t getting paid, but a list of names with oddly specific dollar values next to them certainly puts the whole situation in perspective.
Knowing how bald-faced the lie of NCAA amateurism is, especially in the basketball world, it is preposterous to prevent a player from pursuing an education because he misjudged — or more likely was misled about — his NBA prospects. The NCAA has no real incentive to make this change, and obviously prefers to hold a child’s education hostage for his potential earnings, but Kerr’s is an exceedingly reasonable suggestion.
Which brings me to the broader implications of Kerr’s soapbox speech: The only way forward is with logic and common sense, which is to say probably without the NCAA. There are no minor adjustments that would solve this, and building on the already-convoluted NCAA rulebook wouldn’t serve anyone at this point.
It’s not actually that difficult to see how you’d build a better basketball development system from scratch — in fact, the league has been positioning itself for this move for a while now. Almost every team in the league has its own G-League team, with coaching and player development coordinated to reflect the philosophies of the big club. With a few changes to contract structure and value, the NBA could set itself up to handle a player’s development all the way from middle school through a career in the league.
Beyond the obvious advantage of coaching focused on overall improvement rather than beating Lehigh, the NBA could take significant steps to prepare players for off-court life as a celebrity athlete without forcing them to indulge in the lie of a communications or geology degree. At the same time, offering worthwhile academic instruction could easily be a facet of the system for those with legitimate interest.
Perhaps more importantly, building a new system from the ground up would eliminate a host of absurd NCAA inefficiencies. The wild discrepancies between coaching salaries and player compensation immediately go away. The thriving black market of player recruitment that has drawn the ire of the FBI should disappear if the money moves above the table. Nobody wastes time learning an offense that swings the ball around the perimeter for 27 seconds before a guard launches a contested three.
These are problems that will never be fixed within the NCAA. The power rests in the wrong hands — league officials, coaches and agents are all set up to work within the broken and corrupt system, and the athletes have no control. But the NBA is only beholden to the NCAA inasmuch as the latter serves as an indispensable development system, and those days seem to be nearing an end.
At All-Star Weekend, Adam Silver spoke somewhat vaguely about the league’s efforts to improve player development:
“From a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA. On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger?”
While the commissioner did mention college basketball in his comments, he seemed to keep the NCAA out of his mouth when he was speaking about establishing better youth development. One might say he put them on notice, although NCAA officials are probably too worried about federal subpoenas to take note.
The growth of the G-League and the recent institution of two-way contracts pave the way for Silver and company to take on player development without the partnership of colleges, and that is exactly what the league should do.
It’s not clear just how the ultimate result of such a restructuring would look. It’s possible we end up with a system like baseball, which could benefit both sides — players can choose between a professional development-focused minor league system or a multi-year stint in college. That’s probably best-case scenario for the NCAA, which could maintain a functional tournament even without the very best young talent. March is really more about the Madness than the scouting.
On the other hand, if the NCAA can’t or won’t cooperate, we could see a system more like European soccer, where development teams and training academies staff an entire continent of professional leagues. The money is still massive, but it’s largely above-board and the athletes are more in control of their own destinies, less handicapped by commitments to mercenary coaches or corrupt institutions.
Whatever the final product, this pitting of the NBA against the NCAA — directly or indirectly — is a win for the sports world. Their ends may remain selfish, but at least they share some incentives with the kids. For the NBA, better development means a better league, which puts considerable force behind a movement for reform.
With any luck, the NCAA will soon be in the news more and more frequently for a third reason: Its well-earned demise.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional who lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky; he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.