Corruption in college athletics won't end until athletes are allowed to profit from their celebrity

The Commission on College Basketball was established by NCAA President Mark Emmert after FBI investigators claimed to have uncovered illicit payments to college players — including, they allege, a former University of Maryland player — and their families by coaches, agents and sneaker company representatives. It set out to make “transformational changes to the game” to ensure that “all involved in college basketball [act] with integrity,” according to Mr. Emmert.

Last week, his commission, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, released a 60-page response to the scandals that, at first glance, appears to have delivered on its mission in many ways.

First and foremost, the commission has recommended a number of changes to help the most talented athletes enter into professional basketball. Under the current “one-and-done” rule, players are obligated to wait one year after high school graduation before entering the NBA, a rule that effectively leads to many of the most talented players spending one year in college, with little interest in academic endeavors, before heading off to the professional ranks. Getting rid of that rule, as the commission has proposed, would certainly enable young players to profit off their talents more quickly.

Similarly, the commission also suggested a number of big changes related to underclassmen interested in entering the NBA draft. Under current rules, players who sign with an agent are no longer eligible to play college basketball, nor are players who enter the draft, even if no team selects them. The commission recommends allowing players to get professional advice and to enter the draft — and still stay in school. This change will empower student-athletes in important ways.

Other aspects of the report — including chastising university presidents for their acquiescence to the big-money corruption of college sports, the call for more oversight of summer league games and the desire for more academic oversight by the NCAA — are all promising.

However, the commission punted on perhaps the most important issue it faced: the status of players as amateurs and their inability to earn any money from their likeness and their performances as an athlete.

Citing ongoing legal cases involving the NCAA that have to do with the issue, Ms. Rice said, “We don't believe that the NCAA can legislate in this area until the legal parameters become clearer.” The best she could offer was an ambiguous statement that greater clarity was needed as far as what kind of compensation could “be allowed without opening the door to professionalizing college basketball."

This non-stance represents a missed opportunity. For decades, the NCAA has clung to an outmoded definition of the players who participate in Division 1 sports. According to NCAA standards, these “student-athletes” are amateurs who, apart from receiving academic scholarships, are not permitted to financially profit from their athletic status. Driven largely by concerns about workers’ compensation claims, this definition has prevented athletes from accessing the billions of dollars that flow through and around the world of big-time college sports.

Given the chance to change the fabric of college basketball, to recognize the semi-professional nature of the sport as it now stands, the commission balked. To be clear, unlike some others, I am not in favor of having colleges and universities pay their players. The academic scholarships that schools offer, the access to first-class athletic training, and the opportunities for travel and media exposure are all significant benefits. But I cannot abide the NCAA’s refusal to allow players to financially benefit from their celebrity. And the commission ought to have taken a firmer stand on this issue.

Until the NCAA permits players to accept financial assistance — even while still in school — the temptation to pay players surreptitiously will remain. Making the process aboveboard will alleviate those issues. It will enable some of the poorest in our society to get a financial break. And it will force the NCAA to acknowledge the semi-professional nature of Division-1 sports.

Gregory Kaliss (gkaliss@towson.edu) is a visiting assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Towson University. He is the author of “Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality: Five Pioneer Stories of Black Manliness, White Citizenship, and American Democracy” (Temple University Press).

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