Without the NCAA, the FBI doesn't have a crime. The bribery and fraud scandal engulfing college athletics could not exist without the fundamental corruption of an NCAA system that is flush with illicit cash but denies players the basic right to a dollar.
Basketball practice opens this week, and amateurism again will be just a storefront for the underworld economy that federal prosecutors have uncovered, the cycle of graft among coaches, sneaker execs and agents skimming off a $10 billion business on the backs of athletes, who have to lobby for meal money, much less fair market compensation.
For years, the NCAA has refused to create an honest framework that would let players earn off their sweat like everyone else does. Instead, athletic directors, college presidents and other bureaucrats insist on preserving a superficial corseted Victorian amateur morality code in which athletes are cheats for taking any "extra benefits" — which conveniently preserves everyone else's seven-figure incomes and enables truly felonious black market behavior. Assistant coaches are indicted on charges of allegedly taking bribes to steer star players to certain financial advisers and brands, while sneaker companies essentially act as money launderers for head coaches to buy talent, good merchandise cheap, who will ensure Rick Pitino's job security and pay off incentive clauses in his $5 million a year contract.
None of it could happen in a free market.
Just maybe, the investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York will result in the end of the NCAA rule book as we know it and open the market into the fresh air. Nothing could be more cleansing. As attorney and commentator David A. French puts it, it's time for "profit legalization" for college athletes: Grant them the rights to seek the market value of their own names and likenesses, to retain agents and advisers openly and enter into legitimate aboveboard business deals. Drag the industry out of the shadows and into open accountability. Disinfect the pipeline.
There has never been an amateur code that the sporting world didn't eventually discard and look back at with regret, recognizing its essential dishonesty and injustice. Cash under the table is age-old behavior: Jim Thorpe took it to play college football in the early 1900s; tennis players such as Jack Kramer took it in the 1940s; and so did Olympic track stars in the 1970s. What separates the NCAA is the sheer size of the revenue it earns and withholds from the amateurs it exploits.
This has led to truly criminal acts: Indictments have been brought against 10 people for black market dealings with players, and no one believes that the investigation will end with Auburn, Southern Cal, Oklahoma State, Arizona and Louisville — or their opponents, either. It is also unlikely to be confined to basketball or a single executive from Adidas.
The investigation has thrown into full relief this weird shadowland economy and inverted morality. But there is a bigger crime to contemplate:
What could be more defrauding than to rob athletes of the ownership of their own names, likenesses and abilities? The NCAA, under the fraudulent guise of "nonprofit education," has segregated athletes into a separate class of citizens who simply have fewer rights than other American students. "It's almost an equal-protection argument," French observes.
What other university students are abused this way? No one ever told Jodie Foster that she couldn't be paid for acting while she was at Yale. No one tried to prevent Snapchat's co-founders from profiting on their tech musings while at Stanford. Meanwhile, athletes are economically sequestered and must work 60-hour weeks in exchange for a scholarship that doesn't begin to cover their real worth. The bureaucrats commandeer their market value and reap billions, all in the name of "tradition." And it won't stop until the courts or cops force it to.
For years, athletic directors and presidents have argued that there is no way to pay revenue-producing college athletes directly without making dramatic cuts to other sports or ruining parity. But every new investigation shows more cooking of books and sly self-dealing. Before he was suspended, Pitino-enabler Tom Jurich was the highest-salaried athletic director of a public university in the country at $1.4 million — and was due another $6 million in incentive pay that was quietly granted to him by a former school president. Among Jurich's achievements was negotiating a $160 million deal with Adidas, under which Louisville athletes have to wear the brand for free. This is sanctioned theft.
Jurich's pay was essentially ill-gotten gains taken directly from players such as first-round NBA draft pick Donovan Mitchell, whose television appeal and jersey sales produce the revenue. Yet Mitchell must be content with whatever crumbs the school illicitly tosses him? Throw open the market. Let's see who clamors for Jurich's jersey. Or whether the public would rather see him in prison clothes.
An open market would plant college sports on less corrupt ground. Why is anyone entitled to dictate whether Louisville guard Quentin Snider can get a car commercial from a local dealer? Or command a fee for his autograph or a speaking engagement? Why shouldn't he be able to say to anyone who wants to bid for his services, "What terms are you offering?" Instead, the NCAA is robbing players of some of their peak earning years.
Maybe Snider will make it in the NBA — or maybe he will leave the height of his earning ability, athletic popularity, achievement and physical health behind, in other people's bank accounts. There's a word for that. It's called stealing.