It’s no secret that the NCAA is defiled by corruption and hypocrisy—it has been for years.
Earlier this month, the organization stripped Louisville men’s basketball of its 2013 National Championship and vacated all of its wins from 2011-15 after discovering that the school had employed sex workers as a way to coax potential recruits into commitment. Back in 2014, another NCAA investigation revealed that North Carolina had cheated the eligibility system, allowing 3,100 student athletes—mostly football and basketball players—to enroll in “paper classes” that essentially exchanged minimal work for adequate grades over an 18-year span.
Case after case, the NCAA routinely places a new band-aid on top of a wound that’s very much susceptible to infection. Always reactionary and never preventative, the sanctions seem as if they are designed to quench the thirst of public outcry, rather than address the compromised foundation of what has become a fraudulent system. The effects have only continued to worsen.
On Friday afternoon, Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde and Pete Thamel reported that federal documents, detailing the expenditures of ex-NBA agent Andy Miller, his former associate Christian Dawkins, and his agency ASM Sports, expose at least 20 Division I basketball programs and 25 players, both current and former, of taking part in an underground recruiting operation. Said records list not only cash advances, but also entertainment and travel expenses, some more generous than others, for high school recruits, college prospects, and their respective families. The news isn’t all that surprising—the breadth of the accusations is.
The documents trace the illegal action back to some of the sport’s biggest programs—Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas, among others—and brightest stars, including the Spartans’ Miles Bridges, Alabama’s Collin Sexton, and Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr., not to mention some guys who have already made their way to the NBA. One-and-done North Carolina State and now-Dallas Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. accepted $43,500 in benefits. His fellow classmate, 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, received a smaller payment of $10,000.
There’s no doubt that the controversy concerning the matter will dominate the narrative of the upcoming NCAA Tournament, but we all know that the NCAA will take its time before making any moves. That’s not to say that the NBA should do the same.
It’s quite apparent that most of the players involved in the above case are the Association’s up and coming prospects. These are guys that are simply using college as a stepping stone to get to the next level, for the most part—your prototypical one-and-dones. The “one-and-done” rule, which the NBA set in place prior to the 2006 Draft, requires all selected players to be at least 19 during the calendar year of the draft. Furthermore, any player who is not a CBA-defined “international player,” must be one or more years removed from high school graduation. But the statute has done nothing for the game of basketball except incite trouble and promote overly dramatic storylines.
For the majority of the country’s elite basketball programs, the sport opens a revolving door for athletes with NBA aspirations. There is little to no consistency among top-25 teams, making the game harder for coaches to manage and fans to follow. Kentucky has sent a nation-leading 78 players to the League and since 2000, Duke has shipped off 25 of its own. No wonder these teams ruin people’s brackets year in and year out—their coaching staffs are practically starting from scratch every summer. As far as the players are concerned, neither a year of development nor 35-some games of collegiate competition are going to prepare them for the rigors of the NBA. Some, like Anthony Davis or Marvin Bagley III, are ready to post up the best in the world the minute they leave high school—others, not so much. But the one-year hiatus doesn’t make a difference.
Besides, several players have been weaseling their way out of the rule for years now. In 2008, Brandon Jennings became the first player to join a European team and forgo college since the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. This practice is not unheard of today—in fact, you hear all about it, considering that LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are overseas in Lithuania doing almost the exact same thing.
One prospect found an even bigger loophole: Three years ago, now-Milwaukee Bucks center Thon Maker reclassified during his junior year of high school, effectively cramming in the rest of his classes so that he could graduate in 2015. Then, he doubled back and decided to reenter the Class of 2016, before ultimately changing his mind once more and declaring for the 2016 NBA Draft. In order to attain eligibility, the 7-foot-1 big man successively convinced the NBA that he had actually graduated in 2015 and used the ensuing school year as a postgraduate term.
When then-NBA Commissioner David Stern instituted the rule more than a decade ago, most thought there’d be a reduction in the number of potential busts. Another year of basketball meant another year of tape. Yet Stern’s underlying intent was to get general managers and scouts out of high school gyms. His fear was that the game was being monetized at the youth level—well, he only prolonged the inevitable.
Academic institutions have been turned into athletic academies, fostering some of the greatest talents in the world. They’ll do anything to move up in any sort of ranking, whether that be a top-25 poll or a nationwide recruiting list. Money is just the newest ploy to reel in prospects, and unless someone takes action, coaches and recruiters will just come up with an alternative tactic. Plain and simple, the academic year that is required of soon-to-be NBA players is purely symbolic, rendering the one-and-done rule useless—after Friday’s report, it’s clear that the restriction is doing more harm than good and undoubtedly paints the League in a bad light.
Soon after Yahoo! Sports broke the news of this underground recruiting operation, FS1’s Colin Cowherd went on the air and made a case for the change.
“College isn’t for everybody,” he said. “For musical elite talents, elite basketball talents, it’s a waste of time. You’re better off getting them into an academy, getting the 10,000 hours ramped up. If you’re a prodigy in music, if you’re a prodigy in basketball, what’s the point? You can develop more quickly playing with others in your class.”
Everyone else can skip or drop out of college whenever they want. Heck, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, two of the top five richest people in the world, never graduated. We all have the right to make our own decisions. There’s no reason why NBA prospects shouldn’t. It’s not like the NFL, where players aren’t physically mature enough to compete with older athletes. If anything, youth is more advantageous on the court.
As Cowherd suggests, the solution lies in a developmental academy or program for players coming straight out of high school, one that would facilitate their talent for a year or two before they play in the G League or enter the NBA Draft at age 20—a system that breeds increased development and avoids crooked expenditures, all while bridging the gap between high school and pro athletes.
Obviously, there should still be an option for those interested in pursuing a degree and playing in the NCAA. Like the MLB, the NBA could adopt a policy mandating college players to have either completed their junior or senior years or be at least 21 years old before entering the draft. Only then would the sport have stability and perhaps find a balance between its conflicting academic and athletic demands.
Those who point to a potential drop in entertainment value must remember that during the 34 years that high schoolers were allowed to jump ship to the NBA, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Haywood v. National Basketball Association (1971), fewer than 50 players made the abridged transition. Just as college is not for everyone, a proposed academy isn’t for everyone either.
The NCAA will still have its fair share of blossoming stars. The only difference? We’ll get to see more Draymond Greens and Jimmy Butlers develop, rather than subjecting ourselves to the annual pilgrimage of newly baptized ESPN 100 recruits to the draft. Give it a couple of seasons, and fans will grow attached to their teams’ established stars. The players too will forge a brand that will come in handy if they ever make it to the NBA. Josh Hart is just one example of this phenomenon. In true Villanova fashion, the Los Angeles Lakers guard stuck out his four-year tenure in the suburbs of Philadelphia, compiling thousands of local fans in the process. Now, despite being the last pick of the first round of this past year’s NBA Draft, he’s already nationally renowned.
A lot of logistics will have to be ironed out, but creating discourse is infinitely more productive than patching up the broken workings of the NCAA. As is, scandals are popping up by the month in college athletics. The clock is ticking, if NCAA President Mark Emmert isn’t going to take action, maybe it’s time for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to pull the trigger.
Featured Images by David J. Phillip and Chris Pizzello / AP Photo