The FBI’s investigation last autumn into corruption and fraud in men’s college basketball cannot really be called a wake-up call. Not when the problems — big money, flouted rules, sham classes and never any consequences for wrongdoing — had been so out in the open for so long. Good, though, that the scandal forced the National Collegiate Athletic Association to acknowledge the long-simmering problems by appointing a commission to examine the issues. Even better is that the commission took its charge seriously, delivering a series of recommendations that — while certainly not curing all the ills of intercollegiate athletics — would be improvements over the status quo.
At the heart of the report released last month by the Commission on College Basketball is the assessment that schools have lost sight of their central mission of providing higher education to students in what has amounted to an arms race to recruit the best talent to their lucrative basketball teams. “We need to put the ‘college’ back in college basketball,” said former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who chaired the 14-member commission.
Accordingly, the commission recommended ways to encourage college athletes to complete their degrees, including allowing undrafted players to return to school without penalty and enabling athletes who leave early to earn their diplomas cost free. It sets out a separate path for athletes who have no interest in college by calling on the NBA to once again allow 18-year-olds to be eligible for the draft, thus ending the one-and-done phenomenon in which sought-after players spend a year in college before jumping to the pros.
Noteworthy was the call for overhaul of the NCAA’s investigative and enforcement arms, using independent investigators and imposing stiffer penalties. That the University of North Carolina escaped punishment after being caught — and admitting — that athletes got credits for courses never taught by instructors showed the association’s inability or unwillingness to get its member institutions to adhere to rules. Such failures, as the commission pointedly noted, serve as a reminder that school officials as well as the NCAA bear responsibility for violations, and it recommended that university presidents be required to certify annually their due diligence in complying with NCAA rules.
The commission punted on whether athletes should be paid or allowed to earn money from their name or likenesses, deferring to an ongoing court case it said would help sort out the legal parameters. Caution on this controversial issue, while seen by some critics as wimping out, is wise given the fraught issues of going to a professional model.
Urgency, though, is called for in implementing the commission’s recommendations. Although they were endorsed by the NCAA’s governing board, work is required in changing rules, crafting legislation and building consensus among the 351 men’s basketball Division I members. And it will be up to the NBA and the players association to determine if there will be an end to one-and-done. What they all need to keep in mind is the warning from the commission that “corruption and deception are now at a point that they threaten the very survival of the college game as we know it”.