Yesterday, in a well-publicized trial, aspiring now-former sports agent Christian Dawkins and former Adidas executive Merl Code were convicted of bribery for their part in a massive pay-for-play scheme to send top basketball prospects to specific schools (schools that, by the way, were not Vanderbilt.) That came on the heels of convictions of a handful of assistant coaches for, among other things, taking bribes to steer players to “financial advisors” (really incompetent hacks at best and Bernie Madoff wannabes at worst; if you’ve ever wondered why so many professional athletes go broke, well, this is part of it.) Oh yeah, and LSU head coach Will Wade was caught on a wiretap discussing a “strong-ass offer” to prospect Javonte Smart, and Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson was caught on tape stating that head coach Sean Miller knew damn well that Deandre Ayton was getting $10,000 a month to play for the Wildcats.
The NCAA, you might be aware, requires student-athletes to play for no pay. This would actually work just fine, by the way, were it not for NBA and NFL rules requiring that prospects be out of high school for one or three years, respectively, before playing professionally in their leagues. That, combined with (especially in football’s case) a lack of realistic alternatives for most players, means that aspiring professional athletes who want to get paid to play and don’t particularly want to go to college, have to go to college anyway. Of course the “not getting paid to play” part, after all that’s come out, seems to be mostly a fiction at this point. We’ll grant that the media reaction to the pending NCAA action has mostly been correct; Yahoo Sports, for instance, notes that a whole hell of a lot of college basketball coaches and administrators — basically, the 90 percent or so of Division I that’s not regularly competing for and signing top prospects — are out for blood, as they should be. Unless, of course, you’re the SB Nation mothership, in which case you seriously wrote an article with the title “Arizona didn’t pay Deandre Ayton enough.”
That’s right. The sports blog that Anchor of Gold is formally associated with has a college beat that rather consistently takes an anti-NCAA bent, whether the subject is paying players or simply the rule requiring players to sit out a year when transferring to a new school. In this case, though, it comes out about like defending the actions of drug cartels and arguing they shouldn’t be prosecuted for various crimes because you personally think drug prohibition is immoral.
In any case, arguing against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism is a strange tack. In spite of the paeans to amateurism occasionally heard from Mark Emmert or various university presidents, the NCAA is much better understood as a large and not particularly complicated tax avoidance scheme. The NCAA insists on amateurism not out of a desire to hold down aspiring professional athletes for a few years, but because of the Internal Revenue Service. College athletics as they’re currently constituted are treated by the IRS as basically an extracurricular activity for students at the university, a legitimate extension of the university’s educational mission. That’s pretty close to true of college athletics below Division I (and really, most of Division I itself), and even in the Power 5 conferences, it’s a pretty accurate description of the sports other than football and men’s basketball. The need to keep everything connected to the university’s educational mission also explains NCAA rules requiring that student-athletes be enrolled full-time and making progress toward a degree (and a real degree, too, which is why even the joke majors that football factories often have fancy-sounding names, and players aren’t allowed to just have “football” as a major. You at least have to major in P.E.) By the way, all of this stuff sounds perfectly reasonable when you’re talking about Sewanee’s lacrosse team, even if it seems horribly unfair in the context of an SEC football or basketball team.
But remember, of course, that the main reason that football and men’s basketball are in this structure is because of NFL and NBA rules on who is eligible to play professional football or basketball. And the new-fashioned preferred method of allowing payments to players — the so-called Olympic model, in which schools can’t directly pay players but they are allowed to collect money from endorsements — is little more than a cynical ploy to maintain the NCAA’s tax-free status, because allowing universities to pay players directly would jeopardize that, as professional sports teams are treated just a smidge differently from universities under tax law. (The Olympic model has the added bonus of largely maintaining the current power structure of the sport, since essentially crowdsourcing payments to players — which is what would happen — would put schools with massive armies of t-shirt fans at a big advantage, not that we share a state with any such school that constantly reminds everyone how big their football stadium is.)
The point of all this is, whether you agree with the rules or not, declining to enforce the rules as written is problematic in a way that the “just pay the players, what’s the harm here?” crowd completely misses. This, of course, is written by a person who attended and writes a blog covering a university that has been under NCAA investigation basically never, and probably follows the rulebook to a tee. (That distinction probably has nothing to do with why I might disagree with graduates of Ole Miss or Missouri, both of which have recently been hammered by the NCAA themselves.)
The problems, really, are entirely similar to those presented by doping. For a long time, international sports bodies and professional sports leagues have had massive problems with it, because the cheaters are good at evading detection and oftentimes, the penalties for getting caught are so light as to not be a deterrent at all. In that kind of system, the rules only end up punishing the people who follow them.
If the NCAA is going to have rules on the books, now is the time to drop the hammer. Because otherwise, what’s even the point of this?