That invitation to speak on our campus still stands, but I see that you’ll be a little too busy this spring, now that you’ve accepted yet another “service opportunity” as chair of the new commission tasked by the NCAA to help it reform college basketball. You’ve always been a sucker for a good cause; and if ever a cause qualified, this one does.
When the FBI revealed its findings about the corrupt connections among shoe companies, agents, a few big-time college programs and coaches, and the Amateur Athletic Union or AAU (the first “A” increasingly looks like a misnomer), no one near the sport was shocked. The existence of this part of the cesspool has been in plain view for years. Those in a position to stop the scandals spawned by the “one-and-done” era — in which many top-tier players were required to enroll in college for one year before bolting for the NBA — have been either powerless to do so or actively interested in perpetuating the status quo.
When it was discovered that, at what we’ve always considered an academically admirable school, championships had been won by teams loaded with players who took completely phony classes, most of us were sincerely shocked. We were stunned again when, after years of cogitation, the NCAA delivered a penalty of . . . nothing. It was a final confession of futility, confirming the necessity of this special commission, if any meaningful change is going to happen from the collegiate end.
If the NCAA is impotent to stop the abuses, the NBA is all but an unindicted co-conspirator. The current arrangement works out beautifully for the league: It gets a free minor league player development system, a massively televised showcase for its next round of stars, and one less argument with a players union that prefers to limit, through its ineligible-until-age-19 rule, the number of competitors for the few hundred NBA roster spots. The league has every incentive to keep dragging its feet, so the most promising avenue for reform is to make the college game inhospitable to NBA exploitation and the rotten collusion that the one-and-done world fosters.
As for solutions, one can start by observing that almost no change could make things worse. I don’t pretend to know the single best answer, but it’s not hard to list a number of possibilities.
We could require a “year of readiness,” meaning that freshmen could practice but not play while they became acclimated to college life. This was the NCAA rule for many decades, and it makes great sense unless a “student” really has no intention of pursuing a real education.
Or the NCAA could simply use the rule already in effect for baseball, which gives young aspirants a choice between going professional straight from high school or entering college and staying a minimum of three years. Either of these approaches separates those seriously interested in higher education from those forced by the current system to pretend they are.
Another idea would be to allow players to depart early for the NBA, but the scholarships they received would be required to remain vacant for the balance of their four-year terms. Coaches who want to chase that next championship with full-time players masquerading as students could do so, but the following few seasons might be tough with rosters filled with walk-ons.
I’m convinced the college game would be more, not less popular, if a handful of would-be pretend students, whose names fans barely get a chance to know, instead went straight from high school to some sort of professional league. Doing so would certainly bring more parity and fairness to the college game. The play would still be amazingly athletic — most of us fans would not be able to tell the difference — and schools with genuine academic and conduct standards would no longer be at such a competitive disadvantage.
It’s startling how concentrated the phenomenon is. In the past five years, 45 percent of all “five-star” recruits, and 58 percent of all one-and-dones, have gone to just five schools. Our entire 14-member Big Ten conference, by contrast, has had 9.2 percent of the first category and 6.4 percent of the latter, collectively. One could tell conferences like ours that if we don’t like today’s situation, we can just establish our own rules, but unilateral disarmament never seems like a good idea.
It troubles me to give up on my friends and neighbors at the NCAA, but when the FBI beats you to a monstrously obvious problem in your own backyard, you’re clearly never going to fix it on your own.
So thanks for serving, Condi, and best of luck. If you thought Iranian sanctions or North Korean nukes were hard problems, wait until you try this one. And take your time about that invitation. Go save us from ourselves.