Tom Keegan: Jay Bilas wonders why college athletes can’t have agents

Jay Bilas, center, of Duke is surrounded by Louisville players as he struggles to keep the ball during the first half of the NCAA Championship game at Reunion Arena in Dallas, April 1, 1986. (AP Photo/Ron Heflin)

Part attorney, part NCAA watchdog, part basketball analyst, ESPN’s Jay Bilas is one of the better thinkers in our ever-expanding sports world.

He knows how to sift through facts and interpret them with a smart, original take.

One thing I always have appreciated about Bilas is that he doesn’t suffer from the need to be heard and heard loudly, right this minute. He’s more into the depth of his words than the volume. So he doesn’t speak in absolutes when weighing in on the FBI probe into corruption in college basketball because the facts aren’t in yet.

Many have said that once all the facts come out and the sinners have been cleansed, the game will be better for it.

“I think we tend to say that all the time,” Bilas said. “We don’t know exactly what we have. It’s almost like speeding on the highway. I know people speed on the highway. I don’t exactly know who’s doing it all the time, but I know it’s happening.”

As long as there are rules, there will be rule-breakers.

“We’ve had scandal in NCAA sports since 1905 when the whole thing started,” Bilas said. “We’ve had gambling scandals. We’ve had players being paid. We’ve had all kinds of stuff that’s gone on, and we say this kind of thing every time.”

The easy take is that the cleansing will purify the game. It sounds good, even noble, and it allows everyone to move on to the more enjoyable talk that centers on great shooters, rim-rattlers and coaches. But it doesn’t really change anything.

“My thing is take all the allegations as true. Take everything as true, the stuff we’ve been reading the last few days, and for the last few months, take it all as true — what are we going to do about it?” Bilas said Friday during an interview in Horejsi Center, where the “College GameDay” crew was doing its research. “Put in more rules? We’ve already got rules.”

Instead, he prefers to look at all sides of existing regulations and see if some do more harm than good.

“Do we need to loosen things up so that players can have agents?” Bilas asked. “When you say that players can’t have agents, what that means is all the ethical agents are going to stay on the sidelines and the unethical ones are going to have open-field running on the players. That’s the system we have now and if that makes us feel better, then let’s keep doing it.”

Let the players have agents. It’s a sound proposal. If an agent wants to make an arrangement wherein he buys a player a car to land him as a client, gambling that the player will make more than enough money to make that investment worthwhile, that eliminates the need for finding out where the money came from to purchase a car the player drives around campus.

You can’t legislate morality, so the bigger the rule book, the harder it will be to enforce and the greater the advantage for the cheaters.

In sports, the athletes are both the product and the employees, and in college they’re the ones not getting paid, beyond the value of scholarships and a small stipend.

The best of them have phenomenal earning potential. It creates a combustible mix that makes it irresistible for those who work outside of rule books to entice the impending gold mines to become secret partners.

“We’ve got more money flowing through this game than ever and I don’t see how that’s going to stop,” Bilas said. “One thing I know for certain, no matter what happens in this FBI case and U.S. Attorney’s case and all that, there’s not going to be one game canceled and there’s not going to be one contract that’s voided. All the money’s going to be paid. All the games are going to be played. And we’re going to keep going forward. They’re not going to fold the thing up.”

The product is too entertaining, so much so that taping and watching later doesn’t cut it for most. As a result, games draw more spectators watching in live time. Sports viewers see commercials far more often than those who plow through the ads while watching reruns of “Dragnet” and “Gilligan’s Island” — a show I’ll continue to watch until I solve the mystery of whether the Skipper, Gilligan and the Professor actually tried to get off the island or were just faking it. I suspect the latter, because why would they want to escape what appeared to be such a great life?

Anyway, because we’ll continue to watch college sports, sponsors will line up, the money will grow, and the longer we all pretend that it’s OK that the players don’t get to share in the wealth, the greater the advantage for cheaters.

“I’m a realist,” Bilas said. “I’ve been around the game a long time. If people think that basketball’s corrupt, but football’s out selling Girl Scout cookies on the corner, I don’t believe that. You have two multibillion-dollar businesses.”

All the rules in the world won’t succeed in all that money ending up in the hands of people who wear a suit and tie to work and away from those who are at once the products and blue-collar employees of the business.