A look at 7 scathing comments about college basketball and a report that could change Lawrence’s most visible industry
The most visible industry in Lawrence just got a shot over its bow today. The report to the NCAA on college basketball is scathing in many regards.
If you were hoping for the Condoleezza Rice-led committee to issue a report saying all that is needed to fix college basketball is a system where the players can legally get paid, you will be disappointed. The report doesn’t take that tack — although it said some day the NCAA ought to look at how players are compensated for use of their likenesses.
Instead, the report questions the morals of the sport and raises the concern about whether “college basketball as we know it” can survive. Think about that for a moment: Kansas Athletics is a $100 million a year enterprise based in Lawrence. KU basketball is the undisputed engine of that enterprise. If you are a Lawrence leader — regardless of whether you are a basketball fan — this is worth keeping an eye on.
Here’s a look at some of the most scathing comments from just the executive summary of the 60-page report:
• “In brief, it is the overwhelming assessment of the Commission that the state of men’s college basketball is deeply troubled. The levels of corruption and deception are now at a point that they threaten the very survival of the college game as we know it.” Those were the second and third sentences of the report. They set the tone.
• The idea that college basketball players ought to be getting paid for their performances did not go over well with this commission. The report notes that the lifetime benefit of a college degree can approach $1 million, primarily via increased earning power compared to those without degrees. Simply put, if college athletes aren’t at the school for the degree, they’re at school for the wrong reason. “The Commission believes that the answer to many of college basketball’s problems lies in a renewed commitment to the college degree as the centerpiece of intercollegiate athletics. Intercollegiate athletics is a trust based on a promise: Athletes play for the schools and receive a realistic chance to complete a college degree in return. Any policy or action that violates that trust is morally wrong.” In case you missed it, I think the commission is saying there have been several immoral actors in college basketball.
• Schools themselves aren’t even afraid of the NCAA and penalties, the report suggests. “The NCAA’s investigative and enforcement functions were designed for a simpler time, when rule violations did not put so much at stake. As a result, the NCAA, as an enforcement entity, has little credibility with the public and its members, and what it has continues to dwindle.”
• There was no ambiguity about what the committee thinks of the one-and-done rule, which allows college basketball players to go to the NBA after a year in college. “The one-and-done regime may have provided some benefits for the NBA and the NCAA in the past, but all stakeholders agree that the downsides now outweigh any benefits.” Some people have said that's nice and all, but the NBA controls the criteria for when players can be drafted into the NBA. In other words, the one-and-done rule isn’t the NCAA’s to change. True enough, but the report also provides a glimpse at the leverage the NCAA does have. It could go back to an old rule that makes freshmen ineligible to play in varsity competition. If needed, it also could make a rule that once you give a scholarship to a player, that scholarship is going to be tied up for four years, regardless of whether the player stays on the team for that long. In other words, if you have a one-and-done player, you lose that scholarship for three more years. That may give coaches pause in offering scholarships to players who they believe will only be around for a season.
• Everybody knows people are cheating. “Many informed us that when the U.S Attorney’s Office announced the charges that led to this Commission, the reaction was that ‘everyone knows’ that these payments occur. That state of affairs — where the entire community knows of significant rule breaking and yet the governance body lacks the power or will to investigate and act — breeds cynicism and contempt.”
• Don’t just point fingers at coaches. Blame should go higher up the ladder. “Coaches are the public focus of blame for the NCAA violations. For too long, college presidents and administrators have not been viewed as accountable for the conduct of their athletic programs. That will have to change. College presidents and high-level administrators cannot be permitted to turn a blind eye to the infractions of those programs.”
• Don’t blame the “NCAA.” This sounds a little self-serving given that the report was commissioned by the NCAA. But the point is that the NCAA is nothing more than a collection of schools, the report argues. It is not some entity based in Indianapolis that is causing the problems, but rather it is the action of a whole lot of schools that a whole lot of us root for. “But the NCAA is not really Indianapolis: It is the sum total of its member institutions. When those institutions and those responsible for leading them short-circuit rules, ethics and norms in order to achieve on-court success, they alone are responsible. Too often, these individuals hide behind the NCAA when they are the ones most responsible for the degraded state of intercollegiate athletics, in general, and college basketball in particular.”
Fortunately, my specialty on pickup basketball teams is reading the federal indictments. Indeed, I did spend time late Tuesday reading the federal indictment that brings the FBI investigation into college basketball to KU’s doorstep. Here are a few things to watch and wonder about in the coming weeks.
• Are KU coaches and officials in the clear? Certainly, KU has fared better in this indictment than some other schools. Importantly, the indictment does not make any allegations against KU coaches or KU officials. That’s not the case with Louisville, Miami and North Carolina State, which also are listed in the indictment.
But many KU fans and some media outlets may be over generous in claiming the indictment sends a signal that KU is in the clear on this issue. An oft-quoted sentence from the indictment is: "The payments described herein were designed to be concealed, including from the NCAA and officials at the University of Kansas, in order for the scheme to succeed and for the student athletes to receive athletic scholarships from the University of Kansas.”
That sentence is not the federal prosecutors' way of communicating that they have determined no one at KU knew of this scheme. If you don’t believe me, read the portion of the indictments for Louisville, Miami and North Carolina State. The exact same sentence — except with their schools’ names — are used in the indictment. That’s despite the fact that prosecutors are alleging coaches at those schools knew of illegal payments.
I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that sentence is just boilerplate language to say the accused acted with nefarious intent, in a conspiratorial way and certainly wanted to keep the scheme concealed from some officials. That’s quite different from saying they’ve determined no one at KU had knowledge.
Of course, none of this is to say that KU officials did have knowledge, but events in Washington have taught us that federal investigations are an evolving beast.
• Will KU launch its own investigation into recruiting practices at the university? That’s a question I have in to university officials. Some schools have launched an investigation. Notably USC did so earlier this year when media reports surfaced alleging that an agent was paying players at that school. Conceivably an investigation — or review, if that makes you feel better — could have value even if KU coaches and administrators did nothing wrong. It is probably better to know now rather than later whether there are other problems. Some potential topics an investigator could look at: Did other members on the team know or have reason to believe a teammate had been paid?; have any other KU players been associated with the AAU team that allegedly was used to funnel money to one of the players?; and is KU using best practices in vetting the amateur status of its potential recruits?
• Will KU commit to not signing its multimillion dollar contract extension with Adidas until after the federal investigation is complete? I’ve also asked that question of university officials. The deal was announced in September but hasn’t been signed. I suppose you could look at this scandal as not involving Adidas itself but rather a rogue employee who was submitting false invoices to Adidas to pay the families of players. In that scenario, Adidas would be a victim. However, it is interesting to note that Adidas is not listed as a victim in the indictment. Why is that? Could it be that federal investigators haven’t yet determined what other Adidas executives knew about the scheme? I don’t know. But can KU sign its extension with Adidas — valued at $191 million over 14 years — if there is any question about whether Adidas was complicit in this scheme? For what it is worth, it didn’t stop the University of Washington. It announced a 10-year $119 million deal with Adidas yesterday.
• What’s on the tapes? A careful reading of the indictment sends a message that federal officials have recorded phone conversations that involve discussions of a KU player. The indictment includes verbatim quotes from a phone conversation between an Adidas executive and an Adidas consultant talking about needing to make “another $20,000 payment” to the guardian of a player who later enrolled at KU. The indictment doesn’t go into detail about what else was said in that conversation, but you can bet the feds know. How many tapes are there? Are there other references to Kansas? No one knows but the feds. That’s the thing about indictments: They aren’t tell-alls. The feds will tell you what they want you to know, when they want you to know it. Until then, the rest of us are left to watch and wonder.