What Mark Emmert should have said about college basketball scandal

In our modern world of constant change, it is reassuring when one can find something that never alters.

Here is one: Anytime there is a crisis in major college sports, NCAA President Mark Emmert can be counted on to strike exactly the wrong chord in response.

So it was Friday. Citing access to documents the federal government attained from former NBA agent Andy Miller and his agency as part of the investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting, Yahoo Sports reported that at least 20 major men’s hoops programs might be tainted and as many as 25 college players could have eligibility issues resulting from violations of NCAA “extra-benefits” rules.

The Yahoo Sports report detailed possible NCAA rules violations as consequential as players allegedly receiving loans from agents worth tens of thousands of dollars and as small as players and/or their families possibly accepting a free meal.

In response, Emmert issued a statement saying “These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”

Emmert went on to note he has appointed a Commission on College Basketball, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, tasked with cleaning up the seamy underbelly of men’s college hoops.

The problem with Emmert’s statement is it does not acknowledge the reality of what has led big-time men’s college basketball into its current abyss.

Essentially, you have a black market for basketball talent operating because 1.) the NBA and its players union are denying rising players the ability to turn pro straight out of high school; and 2.) the NCAA model that the top players are all but forced into is based on an outdated concept of amateurism.

People with the talent to be elite basketball players have economic value. The two factors listed above are restricting those people from reaping the benefit of that value.

What Emmert should have said in his statement is that “the NCAA recognizes a big part of the systematic failure that has led basketball to this point is our own in adhering to a standard of amateurism that is no longer compatible with the financial realities of big-time college sports.

“That is why we are committed to a modernization process — based on the example of the United State Olympic Committee — that will align the rules of college sports more closely with current reality.”

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The NCAA then needs to follow through, and do what the Olympic movement long ago did: Allow athletes to accept corporate sponsorships, make commercials, make paid appearances, even have an “adviser” guiding them so they can earn money from their sports celebrity.

What is the down side to that?

I’ve never understood why some are so invested in the idea of “amateurism” in college sports.

I don’t see any purity in having a system where the adult coaches, administrators, TV executives etc. … are getting rich but the college students whose labor is actually the product in what is a multi-billion-dollar entertainment field have their rights to participate in the bounty curtailed.

To go back to the Olympics, do you really have less admiration for the achievements of Team USA skiing gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin because she made a commercial for Visa than you would have had if she were a cash-strapped amateur existing on Ramen noodles?

This is not a call for universities themselves to pay athletes. With some schools supporting more than 20 varsity sports, that would be difficult.

In college sports, once so-called boosters have the go-ahead to pay athletes, the playing field might tilt in favor of schools whose fan bases are especially large and unusually zealous.

But how is that different than now? In any economic system based on freedom to compete, there will never be a fully level playing field.

None of this will end cheating in college sports. Human nature being what it is, there will always be someone going beyond whatever the rules allow seeking competitive advantage.

Nevertheless, a big-time college sports system where the players can participate in the money-making as the market dictates would be fairer.

It would at least bring a good bit of the deal-making going on in men’s basketball (and, I would surmise, football, too) out of the shadows.

It is the model Emmert and his highfalutin basketball commission should be working toward.