NCAA Basketball: The Big Shoe Has Dropped

We all knew this was inevitable, right?    Eventually, some coaches would begin feeling so bulletproof that they would do something that was no longer a “simple” $5,000 stuffed in a duffel bag.   I recall the scenes from “Blue Chips” (a good movie that probably didn’t quite go far enough) where friends of friends of friends of the alumni were handing out cars, tractors, houses, and cash.     It is probably true that this doesn’t happen at every university (especially the tractor), we can all imagine that scrubbing some money to hand over to a recruit’s family is not something that is uncommon.

The NCAA has gone through many scandals in the past, some of which have been under investigation forever (North Carolina academics), some that were highly publicized (Chris Webber), and some that led to schools getting banned for a year or maybe two.  These scandals, however, were typically inside the bubble of one particular school, not a group of schools.  Ed Martin didn’t care so much about getting players to go to Oklahoma State.  He was trying to get players to go to Michigan.   North Carolina isn’t doing the homework for kids from Gonzaga in an effort to get them to pass.  They want their own kids to pass.

Now, we have several schools under the watchful eye of the FBI, with Rick Pitino potentially being the biggest fried fish.   You can try to wiggle your way out of NCAA punishment – it isn’t quite as easy when it comes to the FBI, who have no reason to want Louisville to play for a National Championship this year.  While a handful of schools have already been caught up in this investigation, it appears we are only at the very tip of the iceberg.  The FBI has now subpoenaed Nike, within their Elite Youth Basketball League.   While we haven’t heard anything from that yet, one would assume they are doing more than just due diligence.  They have found smoke, and are now looking for the fire that caused it.

Who is to blame here?   We can blame coaches, sneaker companies, administrations, players, television contracts if we wish to.   However, as is usually the case when a scandal like this hits:  The blame will always trace back to the money.

If you are Adidas, this is quite a scheme, right?   Shove a little (OK, more than a little) money into the face of a highly recruited player, asking him to do nothing more than to go to a college that uses Adidas apparel.   Once that high recruit goes pro, guess what is waiting for them at their front door?  A sponsorship deal with Adidas!   Easy, convenient, and tough to prove.  After all, the kid could just claim that he was using Adidas gear his entire college life, so it only made sense to sign with Adidas once they graduated.  It is so logical that nobody would really question it.

The cash cow for the sneaker industry is the basketball shoe.   Everyone who plays basketball, either on the recreational level or the pro level, needs a basketball shoe.   It appears to be such an easy sell, right?  Make a shoe.  Pay an athlete to endorse the shoe.  Sit back and drown in the profits.   I am making it sound simple, because I think it really is that simple.   The shoe industry is huge, and it isn’t because they can easily endorse Mike Trout spikes.  It is because it is very simple to endorse a Lebron James sneaker.

It has always been obvious the NCAA has a major problem when it comes to compensation for all of the money the organization brings in.   Why is it important to go to the Rose Bowl?  Money.   Why is it important to not be Team #69 and the first team out of the NCAA Tournament?  Money.  Who gets this money?   The schools.  The coaching staff.   It doesn’t go to the 12th man on the bench, or the superstar averaging 20 points per game.  They see none of it.  They are essentially the cash cows that don’t get a piece of the wealth.

I don’t think paying players is really an easy solution to the problem.   The first question that is asked when we talk about paying athletes is this:  How do we make it fair?  How do we making it so that Savannah on the women’s rowing team is as fairly compensated as the five-star basketball recruit?   How do we compensate the players?  Free market system?  A sliding scale system?   I don’t think anybody has an answer for that, and it doesn’t really solve the problem.  Let us say each college is given $2M annually to pay their basketball players.  Is that really going to end under-the-table recruiting?  I tend to doubt it. No matter how much money you throw into the pot, someone is going to be willing to give more under the table to seal the deal.

1.  Should we allow student athletes to market themselves?

In the landmark Ed O’Bannon case, he essentially shut down the college sports video game sector when he sued EA Sports for using his likeness in their old College Basketball series.  Video game makers were never allowed to actually use names, but they were able to create “likenesses” based on attributes.   Essentially, they could make a player named “Bob Smith” who had the attributes of Ed O’Bannon.   The case was eventually settled out of court, but the industry was essentially destroyed.     Should we allow players to get paid for the use of their likeness in video games?  Should we allow them to enter into sneaker agreements?  To shoot a commercial for McDonald’s, or land an acting gig on an episode of Law & Order?  (The way the college sports scene is going now, that may be a story for “Law & Order:  True Crime” in a few years).  It is a complicated issue – and it doesn’t really help the 2-3 star recruits who won’t be able to sell themselves that way.  It is easier being a mediocre college quarterback than it is being an All-American college offensive lineman when it comes to earning potential outside the sport.   However, video games (if they ever could make a comeback) would likely have no problem throwing a little money at everyone on the team for the sake of making a realistic game.

The problem with this is that to market yourself, you need someone who knows how to do it.   Either the NCAA or the institutions would need to hire a marketing group for this purpose, or they would need the players to be allowed to use agencies.

2.   Should the NCAA start issuing “death penalties”?

I think one thing is clear:  The NCAA is going to try very hard to sanction these schools without needing to resort to a SMU-style death penalty.  That penalty crushed the SMU football program, though it has shown some signs of life in recent years.   After receiving the penalty in 1987, the program didn’t even make it back to a bowl game until 2009, which started a stretch of four straight bowl game appearances.    SMU became a guinea pig for the death penalty, and the NCAA likely did not like what they saw.

That said, the loss of a few scholarships or a year away from the NCAA Tournament or bowl games is not working as a good enough deterrent.   During the 2014-2015 season, the Syracuse basketball program sanctioned themselves, essentially declaring themselves ineligible for that year’s tournament.  The problem?  The team wasn’t likely good enough to even make the tournament.    The NCAA eventually came down a bit harder, vacating 108 wins and suspending Boeheim for 9 conference games the following season.   Seems harsh, right?   Let me ask you this:  Do you care about 108 wins that occurred years ago, and how does that really hurt the university in any way?  While having your head coach on the sidelines, especially one of Boeheim’s pedigree, always helps, he was still pulling the strings for the program during his suspension.   While Syracuse has since not been accused of anything, I just don’t see how penalties like this are deterrents.   (For the record, I am using what happened in the Syracuse case as an example – they certainly aren’t the worst of the worst, but their case highlighted to me why I think these penalties ring a bit hollow.)

The NCAA could use a death penalty to send a message.  Louisville is one of the most prestigious basketball schools in the country, but the NCAA would survive a few years without them in the spotlight. However, I don’t think they will see it in their best interests to sanction a school like that again.

3.  What can they do?

I will take the death penalty off the table, so what can they really do that would hurt Louisville, while not shutting down the program for the next decade or two as they clean up the mess?   First thing I would do is drastically reduce scholarships.  This gives the school the ability to still recruit top athletes, but limits their ability to recruit a championship contender.  With the right coach (one that plays by the rules and doesn’t blame everyone else when an infraction occurs), they can build the program back up properly.    This is all a contradiction, of course, since the best coaches available to clean the mess may not want to.

Louisville fans are conditioned. Like the Yankees in MLB, or the Patriots in the NFL, Louisville is expected to put a good team on the floor every year.  While I am not sure how far back Pitino’s violations go, one thing is for certain:  He won.     Are Louisville fans worried about this scandal because it hurts the credibility of Rick Pitino?  Or are they worried because it likely will lead to less wins in the near future?   I can bet on the latter, and because of that, they want a coach that won’t need five years to clean the mess up while also recruiting good players without resorting to similar methods.   Good luck with that.  It is going to take a special individual to want to do any of this.  It won’t be Mark Few or Brad Stevens riding in on their white horse.    Even though Louisville can pay big on a new coach, they may have to look to not only develop a new program…they may need to try to develop a coach who isn’t well-known.

4.  What big names may actually think about this?

Scratch anyone off the list who is 55 years or older.  Those types of coaches are not going to spend their final years in coaching trying to clean up a program.

The biggest young name I can come up with is Chris Collins, the 43-year old coach who is coming off Northwestern’s best season.   There haven’t been any controversies that I am aware of surrounding Collins, who went from reliable Duke assistant to bringing competitive basketball to Northwestern.  He could take the keys (and the money) and essentially do what he needs to do to rework a broken program.   Of course, many may think that Collins one day may be eyeing the Duke job, or could turn his Northwestern success into a more lucrative and less controversial job elsewhere.

Brad Stevens hasn’t shown any interest in wanting to come back to college basketball at this time, and the Celtics would likely do anything to keep him if Louisville was sniffing around their offices.   Stevens’ name will always come up for any high-profile job, but this won’t be it.

Shaka Smart is only 40 years old, and plays a similar style of ball that Louisville employed under Pitino.   He has yet to win much at Texas, but we all know about his track record elsewhere.   He may just be bold and confident enough to think he can make Louisville work.

Do I think any of these coaches would actually give Louisville a try if they are called up before the 2018-2019 season?  Not really….now.  A year from now, when the penalties are known and the dust begins to clear, I bet Louisville won’t be calling many of the top young coaches – the young coaches will be calling them.  There may also be a young coach who makes a big run in this coming year’s tournament who will attract serious attention.  Those are types of variables we cannot currently speculate on.

5.  What will be the fallout as a whole?

It isn’t just Louisville that will be facing the music over the next few months, but as of now, they are the most prominent school, and they have repeat offenses on their record under the same coach.   Depending on how the rest of this falls out, there may not be a tournament for some big schools to play in come March, 2018.   However, one doesn’t expect that to make too much of a difference, as the drama of the NCAA Tournament doesn’t go away because a big school or two are missing.

6.  Should we change some rules?

Yes.   I would completely eliminate the 1-and-done and institute a MLB rule.  In baseball, you essentially have two options:  Go pro or go to college for at least three years (two years for some, depending on their age).    The kids who think they should already be making the serious cash can skip the charade of actually putting on a school uniform they have no real interest in representing after a semester.   The “non declare” rule allows those kids to go to college if they aren’t drafted, or if they don’t want to sign even if they are drafted.   The NCAA should love this, as it likely will increase quality of play at that level, even if some stars won’t be there.

The NBA likely would hate it, since the NCAA Tournament is a free showcase for the future stars of the league.

I also am a proponent of handing out bigger penalties for first time offenders – suspensions, scholarships, postseason play.  Whatever an arbitrator feels is the best possible penalty.   Hit them a bit when they do something small, and it may keep them away from doing something big.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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