The FBI's investigation into NCAA basketball has revealed what college players are really worth. We now know their true value: They are worth six-figure bribes. That tells you a lot. It tells you how desperate schools are to secure a five-star recruit. It tells you how eager agents and sneaker companies are to invest in them for the future. But the main thing it tells you is just how badly the players are being defrauded and cheated out of their fair open-market value by their universities.
It's a supreme irony: NCAA schools refuse to pay players openly but then put a black-market value on them with the extremes to which they will go to get them in the door and keep them on the floor. The thing to remember, as you watch Thanksgiving tournaments from the Virgin Islands to Cancun and the Caymans to Maui, is who the real culprits are. It's not the low-level runners or assistant coaches ferrying cash. The real conspirators are the higher-ups on campus and in the NCAA who are engaged in a scheme to redirect billions of dollars earned by the athletes and funnel it to themselves.
They do it under the guise of enforcing "amateurism," a fraudulent word perpetrated by the NCAA to prevent players from monetizing their skills while lining their own pockets with the work product of those skills, through mechanisms such as offshore paradise made-for-TV "holiday" tournaments. It's a form of hijacking. As former Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro put it, "The bottom of this is the top."
It's going to take more than an FBI investigation to correct this problem. It's going to take "Congress or the president," mediator Kenneth Feinberg said. For the past several years, Feinberg has watched the NCAA intractably resist any attempt to deal fairly with athletes, while pocketing sums such as the $1 billion a year the athletes attract in broadcast rights fees for March Madness.
"It's unbelievable, the hold these colleges and the NCAA has over the athletes," said Feinberg, who mediated the Sept. 11 victim compensations and also handled the Deepwater Horizon and Penn State-Jerry Sandusky settlements.
Since 2010, the NCAA tournament rights fees have geysered from $550 million to $770 million to over $1 billion in deals with CBS and Turner, while ad sales for the networks have soared from $598 million to $1.24 billion. As a mediator, it seems basic to Feinberg that "the athletes should get a share of the rising income stream."
Instead, players get no more than they got in 1960. Their recompense is a scholarship of uncertain value, compromised by practices and game commitments and whatever level of academic fraud the institution is willing to tolerate. As NBA player Michael Beasley noted, some schools even make players park in the distant outer lots, so they can charge high dollars for parking next to the arena for the games.
So far, the FBI's investigation has focused on underlings, assistants, wannabe agents and one exec from Adidas. But these are merely the movers of the money, the bagmen, the middle men. The early indictments in the case have a basic misapprehension at their core: They portray the universities as bystanders or even victims of violations that "sullied the spirit of amateur athletics."
In fact, the tops of universities are stocked with knowing participants, if not the very sources of the corruption. That's where you'll find athletic directors with seven-figure salaries and titles of "vice chancellor" who signed the megadeals with sneaker companies, and the head coaches who built the back channels and funnels through which cash flows.
Then-Louisville president James Ramsey paid coach Rick Pitino $7.7 million and athletic director Tom Jurich $5.3 million last year despite a prostitution-for-recruits scandal. Those salaries and bonuses are more than the university budgets for the departments of biology ($3.3 million), English ($4 million), history ($2.4 million) and mathematics ($3.5 million), according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Jurich signed off on a deal with Adidas implicitly predicated on luring five-star talent.
And now Louisville wants to turn around and affect shock and victimhood that someone offered improper "inducements" to its recruits.
This is classic NCAA behavior: defend amateurism while clutching at the cash. Insulate yourselves by calling everyone else the culprit. Disavow and demonize the kids and act like they are the ones who sullied your campus. And when you get caught by the FBI, convene a committee.
The key to any meaningful collegiate sports reform is to do away with this fundamentally dishonest "spirit of amateurism," which is the root of so many NCAA ills and creates the black market in the first place. It's nothing more than a fig leaf for pervasive corruption. Take away the incentives for bribery, kickbacks and money laundering. Open the market and settle on a fair metric to compensate the revenue-producing athletes, with the help of a mediator such as Feinberg. But that of course won't happen voluntarily because it would mean NCAA athletic directors must agree to take less. A lot less.
"Until the athlete is able to have a seat at the table, all of these formulas, how you compute what an athlete should make, we can never get to that," Feinberg said. "You're talking about an algorithm for dividing the pie, when the pie still belongs to the colleges."
Someone is going to have to force the NCAA to the table. One option is for the president to do so. There is precedent for a president taking on sports reform when it becomes a national concern. Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 helped shepherd reforms in college football that made it safer. In 1962, John F. Kennedy intervened in a fight over governance between the NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union that was harming our Olympic teams, appointing Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a mediator.
"The governing bodies of these groups apparently put their own interests before the interest of our athletes, our traditions of sport and our country," Kennedy said.
"Maybe this president should designate someone of great credibility and say, 'Work it out and report back,' " Feinberg said.
If ever there was a president who could reform the NCAA, it's this one. President Trump knows the issues. He has been a sports promoter and a team owner, and he was a good athletic prospect once himself, scouted by the Phillies. He knows the desk-sitters are unfairly reaping seven-figure TV rights fees and apparel deals off the backs and feet of the athletes. This president likes big sports targets, and the NCAA would be the biggest bull's eye of all. It's a body that could use some serious swamp draining. The NCAA needs to be Trumped.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.