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Won’t anyone think of the children?

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College basketball is an ugly product, and it’s up to the NCAA to fix that with some prodding from the consumer. (Phoebe Sheehan/Centre Daily Times/TNS)
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When most people say something is “for the kids,” they actually aren’t thinking about the kids at all.

The NCAA is the most flagrant liar when it comes to using the youth of America as the tip of their stupid spear. It is an organization that does virtually whatever it wants, public outcry or rampant inequity be damned. It makes millions off the back of an essentially uncompensated workforce and then hops up on a hastily crafted pedestal to trumpet its alleged achievements in scholarship and the molding of a generation. For them, “for the kids” usually means “for the great benefit of many adults unhindered by morality.”

In the style of the NCAA then, I demand an effort to fix the unwatchable mess that is college basketball.

Almost any reasonable sports fan would agree college basketball is failing to reach its potential as an entertainment product — one look at today’s NBA shows you just how compelling and entertaining the sport of basketball should be. It is, objectively, the best sport. (This may not be a proper use of the word “objectively,” but I stand by it nonetheless). But the college game is stagnant and ugly.

It’s popular to blame the NBA or the AAU for the state of the NCAA hoops. The story goes something like, “the way kids play in AAU has perverted the game” and “the NBA’s age rule forces kids to go to college when they don’t want to, forces coaches to recruit one-and-done players and compromises the integrity of the system.”

This story is hogwash. Am I expected to believe that suddenly, around 2002, kids started gunning, stopped listening and started emulating their favorite pros instead of running the Princeton offense with their high school teams? Before the one-year age limit, college athletes uniformly took school seriously and coaches behaved like responsible role models?

No, sir. College basketball is administrated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and its problems belong to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NBA is thriving; as it regards the age limit specifically, the league has pretty consistently improved since its institution. I’m not claiming direct causality, but it’s not hurting the product. (The worst part of the rule is that it directly contradicts American values by denying capable 18-year-olds the chance to earn a living.)

The notion that changing or removing the age limit would fix college basketball is absurd. The talent problem in college basketball is unfixable — the vast majority of college athletes are simply nowhere near professional level, and changing the talent pool by 10 or 20 or even 50 players per year is merely a drop in the bucket.

Fixing college basketball is an administrative project. Even if we acknowledge that the age limit hurts the sport, it’s probably not as damaging as terrible referees, rules that unnecessarily slow the game down or morally (and often strategically) bankrupt coaches who ignore the welfare of their players in pursuit of glory and their next job.

College basketball, specifically the spring tournament and the televising thereof, generates the vast majority of the NCAA’s revenue. The portion of that revenue that ends up in the pockets of coaches and conference commissioners and other wealthy adult men is unacceptable. With a fraction of that cash, you could train better referees, set up training academies to counteract the supposed evils of AAU play or, god forbid, provide the workforce with reasonable compensation.

What we have is a giant, profitable, self-serving organization whose problems are hurting everyone except them. If they were really doing anything “for the kids,” they would be working to bring quality and equity to the game. They’re not, though; there’s no incentive.

We need changes to the rules of the game, both on and off the court; we need an improved flow of play, better officiating, better coaching. These are all problems that can be addressed, but the NCAA isn’t doing it and why would they? Despite being a hollow shell of its potential as a sport, college hoops rakes in nearly $800 million each year on tournament television rights alone.

All it would take to force major change is a group of adults to stand up “for the kids.” Almost any group would do; the association is completely dependent upon the revenue from the tournament, which means any organized set of individuals who wield influence over that event have all the power.

In the end, it probably comes down to fans — which is to say, eyeballs on advertising. Coaches could volunteer regulations on themselves to limit exorbitant salaries and job-hopping, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Conference commissioners could hold the tournament hostage and demand improvements, but they’d probably lose a bonus check. Players could organize and threaten a boycott or some other action, but that’s an awful lot to ask of teenagers who just want to hoop.

The consumer, though, suffers the ills of ugly basketball, the indignity of watching indentured servitude, and has the clout to do something about it. If we don’t watch their crappy game, they’ll have to start improving it. It’s not the most efficient process, but it WILL eventually happen — we just have to hope the wheels of change will react before we tune out entirely.

In the meantime, you’ll find me on my own shoddily assembled pulpit, demanding change “for the kids.” (Which in this case means for my own personal entertainment.)

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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