Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice announces her commission’s recommendations. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Columnist

Sally Jenkins

Condoleezza Rice isn’t out to address one troubled sport but rather the entire reeking morass that is intercollegiate athletics. For so long, the NCAA has been such a mud-encrusted knot of corruption that the only answer was to cut through it with cynicism. But the chairwoman of the Commission on College Basketball has offered a fistful of broad, coherent, reasonable reforms, and in the process, she has drawn a bright line. Everyone will have to pick a side: Are you for a solution, or are you the problem?

As soon as Rice opened her mouth at Wednesday’s news conference to present the conclusions of the 14-member commission’s report, an unfamiliar sensation began to spread: optimism. That’s because the recommendations she advanced were not based in unrealistic, phony Victorian standards; the motive wasn’t to protect vested interests or give chancellors more cover for their padded office chairs. Instead, Rice came from a place of fundamental honesty that began with this statement: “Everyone knew what was going on,” she said.

Everyone knew. At the highest levels, they knew. The boldness in the commission’s report is that it addresses this fundamental complicity. This is where its real muscle lies, not in its more specific recommendations or its endorsement of the amateur model over professional, which disappointed some reformers. Yes, sure, get rid of the “one-and-done rule” that allows draft prospects to use campuses as lily pads to the NBA. But Rice takes aim at the real source of the problem: She fingers the enablers and pimps who have prostituted their campuses and seeks radical self-change at the uppermost reaches of the NCAA. She seeks to recast its entire upper structure.

Three major recommendations stand out in the Rice report. They are not idealistic or pie-in-the-sky. They don’t require any help from the NBA or virtuous conduct by the sneaker companies or any debate. They require only the assent of the presidents and chancellors.

One: The NCAA should create an independent investigative arm, a panel “of professional adjudicators” who have the authority to impose major penalties on schools. Get rid of the toothless internal self-policing unit in the Indianapolis NCAA headquarters, which is basically a chicken coop run by wolves and only “breeds contempt,” as Rice said.

Two: Alter the win-at-all-costs calculus by making the punishments severe enough to de-incentivize the enabling by college presidents, trustees and alumni. “Currently, the rewards for violating the rules far outweigh the risks,” Rice said. The federal investigation into college basketball corruption has targeted all the wrong people, which the Rice report tacitly knowledges. Ten minor figures have been charged with low-level money laundering, bribes and kickbacks. But if Louisville, Arizona and Kansas have operated more like RICO violators than learning centers, whose fault is that? Campus leaders tolerated coaches who were repeat offenders and lunged at big cash deals with sneaker companies they knew were operating shadily. Schools caught by the new disciplinary board should face massive loss in revenue, by forfeit of NCAA tournament money, and five-year postseason bans. Coaches who are repeat offenders should face lifetime exile. Also, Rice wants college presidents to sign yearly certifications that they have done their due diligence in running clean departments.

Three: Bring in five outsiders with experience in public accountability and give them voting rights on a reconstituted NCAA board of governance. Rice has a list of candidates she plans to offer, executives who know how to run performance-based organizations that answer to shareholders and stakeholders.

Do these three things and the entire NCAA landscape suddenly would look different. All of the other common-sense reforms would be easier to pass and enforce, from letting high schoolers explore their draft status without losing college eligibility to seizing control of the flesh-bazaar summer youth tournaments.

The commission’s report is by no means a perfect document. But it has the virtue of marrying deep, sincere esteem for college athletes to concreteness and clarity. Critics fault it for stopping short of recommending pay for athletes, or they seem to have expected something more radical. But I have a feeling that over time it will come to be seen as a valuable starting point.

In fact, Rice personally endorsed the idea of allowing athletes to earn income from their own likenesses and suggested that these issues may well be sorted out by pending litigation. In the meantime, Rice is exactly right to focus on governance because governance is at the source of the most serious fraud in the NCAA: the chronic defrauding of athletes of the decent education they were promised. This is the thread that will lead to all the other thread-pulling.

The pay issue is an important one, but it tends to obscure the equally important issue of whether athletes are getting true value for their scholarships. As Rice noted, only 1.2 percent of college players go on to NBA stardom, and their average career is just 4.5 years. “The college degree is the real ticket to financial security,” she said.

So if you’re really concerned about the rights of college athletes, then start there. It is not a vote in favor of Victorian amateurism to stress the inestimable value of a degree, one of the most “prized possessions” in our society or economy, as Rice points out.

Rice doesn’t get everything right, but her overall emphasis is right on target, and so is her insistence that the system need not be one of inherent “degradation.” She has put the NCAA members squarely on the spot for this attitude, which is really the ultimate cynicism: The belief that sport and education can’t coexist on a campus without corruption. The report is a direct challenge to that cynicism. We’ll see which side of the bright line college presidents take their stand on. Will they be the solution, or will they continue to be the problem?