Too little, too late

In a move that would have set fire to NCAA, the University of Wisconsin very nearly boycotted its Nov. 29, 2016, game against Syracuse University in the nationally televised Big Ten/ACC Challenge to protest compensation limits for college athletes.

Former Wisconsin player Nigel Hayes proposed the boycott to draw attention to the exploitation of players. Their labor earns billions of dollars for the NCAA, athletic conferences and member schools; in return, they receive the cost of attending school and a small stipend.

Hayes, speaking May 1 at a panel discussion on athlete pay, predicted that had Wisconsin gone through with the boycott, “we’d probably be having a very different conversation right now.”

Instead, in a colossal missed opportunity, the conversation about fair compensation for college athletes has been sidelined indefinitely by the blue-ribbon group charged with “fixing” the sport.

NCAA President Mark Emmert appointed the Commission on College Basketball in response to the FBI investigation into illicit payments to athletes and their families through coaches, agents and athletic apparel executives. The commission, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, released its report on April 25. It acknowledges that college basketball is “deeply troubled,” beset by “corruption and deception,” and engaged in a fight for “its very survival.”

The commission — which we note did not include any students — acknowledges the exploitation argument made by Hayes, this Editorial Board and many others. Yet it flatly rejects any notion of paying players. Instead, the commission doubles down on the collegiate model, advising the NCAA to renew its “commitment to the college degree as the centerpiece of intercollegiate athletics.” That might have been tenable in 1920, 1950 or even 1970, but to say a college degree is compensation enough in 2018, when college sports are dripping in money, is beyond ludicrous.

Still, the commission makes sensible recommendations to encourage college athletes to complete their degrees, such as allowing undrafted players to return to school without penalty and allowing athletes who leave early to earn their diplomas cost-free. It also advocates a path to the pros for athletes who really don’t care about college.

The commission rightly rails against the “one-and-done” phenomenon, where basketball players attend college for one year and then jump to the pros. Too bad it’s not within the NCAA’s power to stop it. The NBA and its players’ union would have to agree to change the rules to allow 18-year-olds to enter the draft. There is little incentive for them to change the status quo. The college game acts as a free and effective minor league system for the NBA, and established players competing for a finite number of NBA roster spots don’t want any more youthful competition.

If the NBA won’t end one and done, the Rice commission proposes making freshmen ineligible to play, or “locking up” a student’s athletic scholarship for three or four years to punish coaches for recruiting one-and-done players. These draconian measures would harm the college game more than help it.

The commission also wants the NCAA to get more involved in certifying sports agents, running non-scholastic basketball leagues and curbing the influence of sneaker companies – activities that, paradoxically, would draw the NCAA even deeper into the business of professional sports.

The commission accepts the consensus view — even within the NCAA itself — that its investigative and enforcement process is broken. Investigations take too long, penalties are inconsistent, schools can’t be trusted to investigate themselves, and blatant rule-breaking is condoned — until federal prosecutors rush in, that is. It proposes hiring independent investigators in high-stakes cases, imposing a five-year post-season ban on programs that willfully flout NCAA rules or fail to cooperate, and a lifetime ban on cheating coaches. These are positive steps, but too little, too late to repair the NCAA’s tattered credibility.

To avoid another North Carolina embarrassment — where the NCAA was impotent to punish widespread academic fraud because sham courses were offered to the entire student body, not just athletes — the commission recommends changing the rules to allow the NCAA to “address academic fraud and cheating to the extent it is used to corrupt athletic eligibility.” Amen to that.

The Rice commission punted on the notion of compensating amateur athletes for use of their names, images and likenesses until the courts settle the matter. We support the so-called Olympic model. An endorsement from the commission would have been a small but powerful step toward ensuring equity and fairness for college athletes.

Emmert intends to implement the commission’s recommendations before the season tips off in the fall. When he appointed it in October, Emmert said, “This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change.” Unfortunately, that is mostly what the Rice commission has produced.

The Post-Standard