Can College Basketball Fix Its Corruption Problem?

Can College Basketball Fix Its Corruption Problem?

Assistant coach Emanuel Richardson — arrested by the FBI in September — instructs freshman guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright of the Arizona Wildcats on Nov. 16, 2014, in Tucson, Arizona.

SourceElizabeth Stowe/J and L Photography/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because amateurism is a funny myth. 

There’s an old saying in college basketball circles called “dropping the bag.” When one man drops a moderate-size duffel bag full of freshly washed $100 bills and turns around to find that the bag has disappeared, well, hopefully those bills made it to where they were meant to go.

This may sound like a scene from Donnie Brasco, but dropping bags has long been a poorly kept secret in college basketball. Now, the September FBI arrests of 10 individuals — college coaches, NBA agents and shoe company executives — for six-figure payments made to high school recruits has sparked fresh debate about the role the NCAA should play in regulating college basketball. To some, the arrests suggest AAU basketball, the premier recruiting circuit for college prospects, is no longer sustainable, because of an inseparable affair with major athletic brands. At the heart of that post-scandal debate — which has spawned numerous new committees — is the question: Should the NCAA further distance itself from AAU operations, or instead allow its coaches full access to the mine field?

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas believes proactivity is needed. Bilas tells OZY that rather than further distancing itself from the recruiting trail, which he fears will be the case, the NCAA should host AAU tournaments itself. “I’m concerned that if there’s an overcorrection, which tends to be the NCAA’s way of doing things … they will swing the pendulum too far back in the other direction,” says Bilas. College coaches, instead of being taken away from summer recruits, should have more influence and more events should be held on college campuses, he adds.

It’s like being sponsored by Nike since middle school.

Darryl Bryant, former West Virginia point guard

But others, including some of the game’s biggest names, like North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, are advocating a rethinking of the NCAA rulebook, plus harsher penalties and more direct lines of communication with the NCAA offices, according to CBS Sports. To sharply define right and wrong, Williams advocates eliminating the NCAA rulebook by as much as 90 percent, then permanently banishing knowing violators — a view with which Few told CBS Sports he agrees.

The NCAA banned on-campus AAU events in 2010, and college coaches are currently limited to offseason recruiting periods in April and July. That’s led to a host of outside actors — with priorities other than college basketball’s best interests — operating the AAU world. Major apparel outfitters long ago realized that athletes make for effective billboards. Companies like Nike, Under Armour and Adidas sponsor hundreds of AAU clubs, and each brand hosts its own circuit of events. According to former West Virginia point guard Darryl Bryant, these sponsorships are a way to instill brand loyalty in potential partners. “The big AAU programs start recruiting kids in fourth grade,” Bryant tells OZY. “It’s like being sponsored by Nike since middle school.”

In October, NCAA Commissioner Mark Emmert announced the formation of the Commission on College Basketball, chaired by former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and charged with fixing college basketball. “The culture of silence in college basketball enables bad actors, and we need them out of the game,” Emmert said via statement. “This is not a time for half measures or incremental change.” That mission is admirable, but only two commission members are experienced recruiters. One group that believes it can help is the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The NABC has launched its own committee, the Ad Hoc Committee on Men’s College Basketball, to develop a series of recommendations for the NCAA commission to enact. “We believe our coaches have a unique insight into the grass-roots space,” says NABC Executive Director Jim Haney.

According to Haney, Bilas’ proposal of reassessing the limited access granted to college coaches during summer recruiting is “a sentiment that is shared by many of our coaches.” Still, both Haney and the NCAA remain tight-lipped about how to specifically move from here. The NCAA commission will present its findings to the NCAA board of directors in April, and Haney is waiting until his committee meets with the NCAA prior to that before going public. Of course, it doesn’t help that fixing this problem is akin to extracting the roots of a cancerous tumor. “There’s no broad brush that’s going to make it all better, because there’s no one entity to attack,” says former Indiana University head coach, and current ESPN basketball analyst, Tom Crean. “There’s a widespread culture that has been created, and there are expectations that some people have.”

That AAU professional culture worsened in 2005, when the NBA instituted its infamous “one-and-done” rule requiring draft prospects to be one year removed from high school before joining the league. Forced to spend a year in college, why wouldn’t a future NBA star accept a relatively small sum in exchange for his services? In November, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver met with the NCAA commission to begin reassessing the future of the rule. The NCAA has no say in rules governing NBA process, but Rice’s clout may help.

No matter what you believe about athletes being paid (more than scholarships and room and board, that is), there is no denying that the NCAA is far from a bastion of unbridled amateurism. Be it by a duffel bag or wire transfer, prized prospects are cashing in. It won’t be easy to get to a day when AAU tournaments are held on college campuses, athletes are given tours by campus guides and introduced to the academic and athletic benefits of a campus, free of the shadow of bribery and fraud. But if that fight has to be won, the NCAA can’t ignore the operations of AAU basketball, and must more clearly delineate the line between ignorance and criminality.

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