Column: Latest scandal makes it clear: It’s time to let players be paid

By David Haugh - Chicago Tribune

In a Chicago market dominated by professional sports, big-time college basketball often sounds like a misnomer, so the sport’s latest brush with NCAA hypocrisy probably produced somewhere between an eye roll and a shrug.

But pay attention this time. The stunning revelations about the sport’s open secret, unearthed in reports by Yahoo Sports and ESPN, feel different, like a day of reckoning finally has arrived for the NCAA and its obsolete model of amateurism. This March, the madness likely means top programs worrying as much about FBI findings as RPI rankings, with their focus diverted from one shining moment by nearly 3,000 hours of potentially compromising phone conversations. Think of how nervous that number makes so many coaches.

One of those calls, according to ESPN, involved Arizona coach Sean Miller making arrangements with a rogue agent from ASM Sports to pay elite recruit Deandre Ayton$100,000 — an allegation that resulted in Miller not coaching Saturday night. If evidence backs up the allegation, Miller never should coach another college game. Good luck in the NBA’sG League.

This bombshell came on the heels of Friday’s Yahoo report alleging as many as 25 current and former players at more than 20 Division I programs, many of them blue bloods of the sport, received impermissible benefits from the agency, ranging from free meals to five- and six-figure payments. And this was information obtained on only one agency. Imagine how many others operated similarly.

Predictably, NCAA President Mark Emmert responded with a Shakespearean statement, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Referencing his appointed Commission on College Basketball, whatever that is, Emmert dropped committee member Condoleezza Rice’s name in the third sentence to establish credibility and vowed what the NCAA seldom delivers.

“With these latest allegations, it’s clear this work is more important now than ever,” Emmert said. “The board and I are completely committed to making transformational changes to the game and ensuring all involved in college basketball do so with integrity.”

Emmert sounded serious. But integrity requires transparency, and the only way the NCAA can promise both will be if Emmert grasps the obvious: The time has come to adopt an Olympic-style compensation structure that permits so-called student-athletes in all sports to be paid what the market bears.

Replace so much empty rhetoric with results. Edit a rule book that has been too thick for too long to let sponsors or agents compensate the NCAA’s best and brightest the way teenage prodigies in other walks of life, such as singers or dancers or actors, are allowed. Somewhere, a teenage pop star laughs at the idea of Ayton getting a measly $100,000 for being one of the best at his sport.

Corruption runs so rampant nowadays that massive NCAA deregulation creating a free market offers the smartest, fairest solution to the biggest problem confronting college sports. A high school kid and his family can’t be on the take if there are no rules to break. The AAU coaches or middlemen brokering seedy deals between schools and recruits can’t wield such power in college basketball’s underworld if everything is done above board.

Any other NCAA change short of removing such restrictions on earning potential would fail to meet the criteria for the transformational change Emmert promised.

We didn’t need an FBI investigation to discover the current system lines the pockets of everyone but those who actually make the money, but the exhaustive nature of the probe affirmed how pervasive the behavior has become. As the inflation of interest balloons television rights fees into the billions and increases coaches’ salaries by the millions, a $400 cash advance to the mother of a star player uncovered in the probe warranted hand-wringing. Stop the charade, everyone. Start facing reality that we don’t have to like but must accept in the name of fairness and progress.

Two NCAAs exist. The traditional model Emmert and others cling to indeed works for the majority of young men and women who benefit from a scholarship and value its worth. For those thousands of lesser-known Division I student-athletes, from Northwestern to Northeastern, it goes beyond the $250,000 a four-year college education can cost these days. It affords the youths experiences and opportunities impossible to put a price on, opening a world full of success and satisfaction that likely would be emptier without competing in college sports.

But the exceptional peers among them, such as Ayton and Michigan State’sMiles Bridges in basketball or Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and UCLA’sJosh Rosen in football — truly exceptions to the NCAA rule — live a different reality, command more attention, generate more revenue and simply deserve better. They deserve to be treated differently than the majority of NCAA student-athletes because, like it or not, they are different, at least in terms of how they potentially affect the bottom line that matters more than ever in higher education.

Denying that is disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst. Traditionalists must acknowledge, grudgingly or not, how corporate intervention into intercollegiate athletics already dictates where players play and coaches coach. The outcry won’t get any louder if the NCAA relaxes the rules to allow such investment. The landscape likely won’t shift dramatically enough to affect the balance of power in the major revenue-producing sports of men’s basketball and football.

One thing definitely would change: Fewer scandals would sully college sports, which are in bad enough shape to make a federal case out of it — and that’s no exaggeration.



David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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By David Haugh

Chicago Tribune