SBJ/March 17-23, 2014/Opinion

A few ways NCAA really could be there for student athletes

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The NCAA maintains that the public does not fully understand the NCAA’s role in college athletics. To dispel some myths and to explain what it actually does, the NCAA runs public service announcements during its showcase NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In its most recent iteration, the PSA ends with this catchy statement: “Just know that we’re always there for student athletes.”

Always there? For its 450,000 student athletes? Even elite athletes? Let’s examine.

Over the last several years, the NCAA has gutted rules that allowed college basketball players to test the NBA waters before making their final decision to stay in the draft or return to school. Now college basketball players must make their final decisions by April 10 or so. This conveniently coincides with college basketball’s spring signing period.

Making matters worse for college basketball underclassmen: NCAA rules prohibit players from using the services of agents. This is patently unfair and likely illegal. Think about the role of agents: Their job is to understand the draft marketplace and properly guide clients through the process. The no-agent rule is even more unfair to college baseball athletes who must attempt to negotiate an MLB contract without the presence of an agent. But at least baseball players do not have to declare for the draft. They are simply drafted and then attempt to establish a fair deal.

For a college basketball player who declares for the draft, but later realizes he made a bad decision, he is permanently banned from NCAA basketball. If the NCAA is really there for its athletes, it has a funny way of showing it.

NCAA rules around players declaring for the NBA draft increase the chances of a poor decision.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
In the case of underclassmen deciding whether to stay in school or turn pro, NCAA rules do not work and ultimately increase the likelihood that they make costly decisions for themselves and their institution. The solution should be obvious: Let each NCAA member decide what is best for its institution and its athletes, rather than try to solve such issues association-wide.

After decades of imposing unfair pre-professional rules, is there anything that might now compel the NCAA to change?

The NBA, maybe. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has intimated that he plans to push to increase the age requirement. In an email to me, Silver said that he would like to see this change “so that players who enter the league will have more experience against elite competition and be better prepared for life and play in the NBA.”

Ron Klempner, National Basketball Players Association acting executive director, wrote via email, “Any discussions about the NBA age minimums would have to be conditioned on the NCAA’s agreement to lift various restrictions and make whatever other changes our players feel necessary to bring about a fair result.”

Silver would not comment specifically on NCAA rules but said, “what is needed is an open and sustained dialogue among all of the game’s key stakeholders to build consensus on issues and potential solutions.”

Think about the twisted system for elite underclass athletes entering the job market: No other college student is required to forfeit school in order to explore career opportunities. In the real world, job seekers know exactly what they will be paid and then accept or reject. But in the NCAA world, NBA prospects must make an important life decision without knowing their market value. Personally, I do not care if players stay in school or turn pro as long as they make solid decisions that optimize their long-term basketball careers. Sadly, when it comes to turning pro, NCAA rules conspire against players.

If the goal is fair rules for elite basketball players, here is what should be done:

Follow the NBA’s draft timetable, not the NCAA’s. Players must declare 60 days before the draft, and then they are allowed to withdraw 10 days prior, which typically falls around June 10. By this time, players have a much clearer picture of what the best decision is.

Allow schools to purchase disability insurance on behalf of elite players. If buying an insurance policy on behalf of college athletes helps to retain more players, great. And let the school decide how much insurance is sufficient. What about those who believe all athletes should be treated equally and not receive special treatment? Keep in mind the NCAA’s Elite Athlete Disability Program permits certain revenue-producing athletes to borrow money against future pro earnings. It’s just a matter of who foots the bill, athlete or institution.

Abolish the NCAA’s no-agent rule. It is shameful that the NCAA prohibits college students from retaining an agent, even if it is only for the limited purpose to assist with the draft. No one is suggesting agents be allowed to provide extra benefits. If the NCAA does not want eligible athletes to have an agent, require athletes to terminate the relationship before they return to school.

Let schools set their own policies for players who declare for the NBA draft. A coach can decide what is best for his program, far better than one-size-fits-all NCAA rules. If a coach wants to leave the door open for a player to return, great. If the coach wants to require an earlier decision in order to sign another player, impose an earlier deadline. But, if the player’s scholarship is withdrawn and that player decides he wants to return to school, he can transfer to another institution without having to sit out a year. What about a program going over the scholarship limit? Let them if it means keeping a player in school another year or two.

In the end, the only goal should be to help athletes get this decision right. Clearly, too many underclassmen are making bad decisions by leaving early. If adding another year to the NBA’s age minimum is deemed necessary, it is only a half solution. The other half is getting the NCAA to agree to rules that support the development of future professional basketball players.

Marc Isenberg (marc.isenberg@gmail.com) is the author of “Money Players: A Guide to Success in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes.” He is managing director of GSG Capital Advisors. Follow him on Twitter @marcisenberg.

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