SBJ/Nov. 6-12, 2017/In Depth

Cracks in the game

Federal investigation reveals what decision-makers have known for decades: College basketball is broken

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The FBI investigation of bribery and fraud in college basketball cost Louisville head coach Rick Pitino his job. Louisville also fired longtime AD Tom Jurich.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
About 20 executives representing the NBA, NCAA, USA Basketball and shoe companies met at a hotel in Chicago to talk about ways to clean up recruiting and, specifically, the summer basketball circuit.

They discussed a set of standards that every tournament and camp must meet in order to be sanctioned. Teams and camp coaches had to be sanctioned, too. Without that stamp of approval from the NCAA and the NBA, the summer recruiting events would lose their credibility and, most importantly, college coaches wouldn’t be permitted to attend.

It sounds like the kind of summit the NCAA should be having today, in the aftermath of the September FBI sting that led to the arrest of 10 people, including four college assistant coaches, on bribery and fraud charges.

But it’s not. The summit in Chicago — a gathering of well-meaning, highly placed administrators and coaches to examine summer recruiting — took place 15 years ago. They believed then that the system of shoe company-run summer camps and tournaments, specifically AAU basketball, was poorly structured. It needed some form of regulation and oversight.

“It seems even more relevant today,” said Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, who in the early 2000s was an attorney hired by the NCAA and the NBA to reform the summer recruiting scene.

Despite the attempt, the Chicago summit broke without the desired impact. Nothing really changed, except for the exchange of some promising ideas that never shifted from the PowerPoint to actual reform. The college basketball recruiting scene meandered on, unchecked, until a nearly three-year federal investigation shed light on the alleged under-the-table payments and bribes that had been carried out in the shadows.

“This is not a problem that just cropped up. It has existed for a long time,” said Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner. “A lot of fans look at it and they’re losing their faith in what is supposed to be amateur athletics. I understand that.”

First Look podcast, with college basketball discussion at the 16:30 mark:


NCAA President Mark Emmert wants changes implemented to restore public confidence in the game.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
The games return this week, but the start of the season won’t mask what has become blatantly clear: College basketball is broken. NCAA President Mark Emmert said as much last week in front of the Knight Commission when he admitted that the NCAA must make substantive alterations to its flagship sport.

But is college basketball ready for some radical new ideas to reshape the game? If not now, when, say some of its most influential voices.

Start with eliminating the NBA’s one-and-done rule that seems to be universally disliked, so that players who are ready can jump from high school to the pros. Allow players to have agents when they’re negotiating contracts and deciding whether or not to go pro. Those are two rule changes that seem to have substantial momentum and could happen.

They said it

Who the hell is in charge? They tell me the NCAA is in charge. Gimme a break. The NCAA is dealing with so many things. I just wish there was a person in charge of basketball, a watch guard, somebody who knows the sneaker companies, the NCAA, TV, the tournament, NBA, USA Basketball, NBPA. We need someone who can bridge those entities. Somebody has to take control and create a master plan.”
Mike Tranghese, former commissioner, Big East 

It was four out of 1,404 coaches in Division I, but the perception is that we’re all guilty.”
 — Jim Haney, executive director, NABC 

On that day of the arrests, I don’t know a coach who didn’t feel like he’d been punched in the face. It’s like, ‘Wait a second, that changed the whole landscape there.’ The people who got arrested, they’re friends of mine. Anybody who’s paying players, listen, they knew they were breaking the rules, but they didn’t know they were breaking the law.”
Josh Pastner, coach, Georgia Tech 

It’s not just about the top kids. There are hundreds of kids that play AAU that are going to Division II and Division III schools. They’ve got to have a place to play. AAU serves a great purpose.”
Jim Boeheim, coach, Syracuse 

I’m saddened, but not totally surprised. I’ve seen the escalation in the interest of winning and stardom. It’s less and less an educational experience, which made this bound to happen. It’s pretty close to being out of hand, and it’s causing people to do things that aren’t right.”
Dick Bennett, former coach, Wisconsin, Washington State 

What I’d like to see is greater high school involvement. A drastic move would be to do away with summer recruiting. You just don’t recruit in the summer. You recruit during the high school season. It would help because right now high school coaches are left out of the process.”
Gary Williams, former coach, Maryland, Ohio State, Boston College 

What are shoe companies going to do? What will be their philosophy moving forward? Do they still want to dance in this world after the Adidas stock dropped 9 points because of the arrests? That had to be like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’”
Mike Brey, coach, Notre Dame 

— Compiled by Michael Smith 
But are they radical enough to change the behavior that led to the FBI’s nearly three-year investigation?

What if the NCAA banned coaches from recruiting during the summer and they could only recruit during the high school season? What if players who turn pro early were allowed to regain their amateur status and play college basketball?

These are the kinds of changes that could take college basketball in a sharply different direction.

“We cannot go into the next basketball season without seeing fundamental change,” Emmert said of the work to be done to clean up the game over the next 12 months. “The public doesn’t have significant confidence in any of us.”

‘Everyone is looking 
for an advantage’

The federal investigation that led to the Sept. 26 arrests simply confirmed what had long been suspected — the game is riddled with corruption, fraud and unsavory characters looking to profit from the athletic exploits of teenagers.

The NCAA and the NBA knew it 15 years ago, and likely long before that.

Former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who spent 44 years in the profession before retiring six years ago, was one of the few voices in the wilderness decrying the recruiting landscape that replaced the high school coach with layers of advisers around prep talent. He advocates for the NCAA to ban summer recruiting so that coaches would return to the high school campuses to recruit players.

“I got tired of the fact that we couldn’t get the best players and maybe I wasn’t the best recruiter, but you also knew there were things going on and you saw it increasing, not just in power conferences, but also at the mid-major level,” Williams said. “Everyone is looking for an advantage. That’s just the reality of where the game is now.”

Four assistant coaches were charged with taking bribes in exchange for steering college players to certain financial advisers or agents. Adidas’ Jim Gatto also was charged with bribing players with thousands of dollars if they’d go to an Adidas school, such as Louisville.

In the wake of the crackdown, the Cardinals have fired the two most influential figures on campus: basketball coach Rick Pitino and AD Tom Jurich. The FBI’s investigation is ongoing and more arrests could be coming.

“It’s going to get way worse before it gets better,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We all know the perceptions we’re fighting.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey expects the situation in college basketball to get worse before it gets better. “We all know the perceptions we’re fighting,” he said.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
To Emmert’s point, now that college basketball’s underbelly has been exposed, what is the way forward and who should be the ones directing it?

Is it an NCAA problem? Doesn’t the NBA and the players association have a role to play? USA Basketball has been tiptoeing into youth basketball over the last three years and, like other national governing bodies in their sports, it could be a force in regulating the offseason. The National Association of Basketball Coaches, likewise, is working on its own set of recommendations for recruiting.

Very likely, the entities that bridge the grassroots, college and pro games all have a seat at the table, but what that looks like remains to be seen.

“Anyone with a stake in basketball should be helping clean up the game,” said Jerry Colangelo, the former USA Basketball chairman and previous owner of the Phoenix Suns. “The summer is the culprit, but it’s not going to be fixed overnight.”

Radical action needed

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said the one-and-done rule is not working and he’s open to negotiating a new entry rule with the players association that could open the door for players to jump from high school to the pros. Most college administrators and coaches agree that players should be free to go pro when they’re ready, even if it’s straight out of high school.

$0 $50M $100M $150M * 2015-16 academic year Source: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Education reports Money makersTop 20 athletic department revenue for men’s basketball and overall* Louisville $45.6M $112.1M Duke $92.0M $31.0M Alabama $14.4M $45.6M Pittsburgh $15.8M $75.3M Arkansas $16.0M $127.3M Illinois $16.7M $78.4M Michigan $16.8M $146.2M Maryland $17.1M $94.1M Michigan State $17.6M $100.9M Texas $18.0M $182.1M Kansas $18.0M $94.7M Marquette $18.3M $32.4M Tennessee $18.6M $135.9M Ohio State $19.9M $169.9M North Carolina $21.3M $91.0M Arizona $21.7M $81.2M Wisconsin $22.8M $130.0M Indiana $23.1M $93.9M Syracuse $26.9M $82.7M Kentucky $27.2M $124.0M
“I can’t find anybody in the world who thinks one-and-done is a good thing,” Swarbrick said. “It’s completely artificial. If players want to pursue their dreams out of high school, no problem. But if you go to college, what commitment should you make? Anything less than two years doesn’t make sense to me.”

To take a deeper dive, the NCAA has formed the Commission on College Basketball, a 14-person committee chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Its members range from ex-players Grant Hill and David Robinson to Ohio State AD Gene Smith, Emmert and school presidents.

The ACC and Pac-12 each have formed their own task force to establish more recommended rules changes.

nship between the schools and the shoe and apparel companies that pay millions to outfit the athletes.

The commission, which will report its recommendations to the NCAA’s board next spring, also is expected to re-evaluate the role of agents and advisers to see if a more transparent relationship, like the one in baseball, would be more conducive to keeping those deals above the table instead of below it. In baseball, the NCAA permits players to hire agents when they’re negotiating contracts and determining whether to go pro.

“There are good agents and bad agents,” said Danny Manning, Wake Forest’s basketball coach and a former NBA All-Star. “Are they going to be part of the process? Absolutely. They’re going to be involved; it’s just a matter of whether it can be regulated.”

Emmert has made it clear that he favors the kind of radical action that will change the face of college basketball.

“We must take decisive action,” the NCAA president said last month. “This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change.”

Len Elmore, a member of the Knight Commission, a former player at Maryland and a former agent, remains skeptical because of a system that has lined the pockets of coaches, athletic departments and those that operate in the shadows, like the advisers and runners who were corralled by the FBI.

He openly wonders how the NCAA is going to crack down on the shoe companies — Adidas, Nike, Under Armour — that manage many of the summer recruiting events when those same companies pay the schools millions each year for marketing rights.

After all, the shoe companies were the original jersey sponsor.

Would they be willing to stand down in the summer, while continuing to sponsor the schools?

“Everybody tiptoes around it because of the commercial rewards in college basketball and the various interests that are profiting from it,” Elmore said. “The biggest failure is not having a strong, credible, moral authority to set the rules and enforce the rules. … [The NCAA commission] is a bunch of qualified, smart people, but none of them are radical thinkers and that’s what is needed right now — radical, impassioned thoughts about how to make this thing work.”

Is paying players the answer?

On the September day the FBI announced the arrests, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner’s next-door neighbor, who is not a basketball fan, was there to greet him in the driveway.

“He saw that the FBI was involved in college basketball,” Pastner said.

Former Maryland coach Gary Williams advocates banning summer recruiting.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The next morning, Notre Dame’s Brey walked into his favorite breakfast place in South Bend and sat among the Fighting Irish fans.

“We OK?” they asked the coach. “Everything good?”

“That’s the world we live in now,” Brey said.

That world increasingly advocates for college players to be paid, whether as employees or through managing their own name, image and likeness rights, like Olympic athletes.

A growing number of college administrators, ranging from Notre Dame’s Swarbrick to Big South Commissioner Kyle Kallander, who sits on the NCAA’s Division I Council, have voiced support for athletes to financially exploit their own rights through jersey sales and trading cards.

But the rights issue doesn’t resolve the cheating that has tainted college basketball.

“I would not leverage the current problems in college basketball with [name, image and likeness] rights,” Swarbrick said. “One has zero to do with the other.

“People say, ‘Look, you pay the athletes, none of this would happen.’ Actually, the exact opposite is true. They’d be more incented to do more to get the players. I understand the point about their rights, but it has nothing to do with this.”


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