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NCAA goes into cleanup mode

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Recently announced basketball rules changes demonstrate a step in the right direction.

NCAA President Mark Emmert News Conference Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

You may have heard recently that the NCAA has implemented a series of new men’s basketball rules changes designed to “cleanup” the issue of corruption in the sport.

The motivation by the NCAA to roll out these changes has been driven largely by the FBI investigations into corruption that earlier this year resulted in several high-profile coaches being implicated including Louisville’s Rick Pitino.

These new rules, fueled in large part by recommendations flowing from the independent commission chaired by Condoleeza Rice, are far from a fix-all and will certainly result in the kinds of unintended consequences that make average fans question both the sanity and the intelligence of NCAA officials. But, hey, we do that already.

The bigger picture here is that these rules changes demonstrate two important fundamentals that must be present if the task of cleaning up college basketball is to be achieved:

  1. the problems ... and their root causes ... are finally being acknowledged
  2. acknowledgement that the NCAA itself is part of the problem is happening

In prepping for this piece, I read through the rules changes as well as several of the NCAA’s statements in explaining them. Doing so was only slightly more enjoyable than exfoliating with a ginger and razor blade body scrub. A little more painful, perhaps.

For those of you that haven’t read through these rules, allow me to provide you with the 30,000 foot highlights:

a. Certain players (including incoming recruits) will be allowed to have agent representation when not in school, including the ability to accept benefits such as meal and travel reimbursement

b. Players who participate in the NBA Combine but go undrafted will be allowed to return to school assuming they have remaining eligibility

c. Significant changes have been made to the recruiting calendar and in the rules governing what kinds of events coaches can attend in the recruiting process

d. The results of outside investigations, such as the one being conducted by the FBI, can now be used in the course of official NCAA investigations

e. School presidents, chancellors and boards will now be contractually accountable to the NCAA for compliance of their basketball programs to these new standards

There is much in the way of details that I didn’t capture above, but you probably get the gist of it all. In a nutshell, the NCAA wants to address the issues of fraud and corruption by focusing on:

  1. the “one and done” dynamic
  2. the influence of outside entities such as grassroots leagues and agents
  3. the behaviors and compliance of athletic programs and their coaches

Cynics will argue - and I can’t blame them - that these rules changes fall far short of the kind of real change required to effectively stem the tide of trouble that NCAA basketball currently faces. This is certainly fair.

Much of the corruption that exists in NCAA basketball is rooted in the emergence of the black market that has risen up to match supply with demand when it comes to basketball talent. That black market has essentially been created by rules that prevent student athletes from capturing value for their differentiated talents and capabilities. We could argue all day whether or not players and prospects ought to be compensated, but I think it is nearly irrefutable that this black market exists because they largely do not.

Clearly, these rules changes do not address this issue. The black market will continue to exist. In fact, given the lack of clarity on how the NCAA will actually execute on the management of agent relationships and on the return to school policy, it is entirely possible that the influence of outside instigators will not be materially affected at all.

However, these changes do have some teeth on the demand side of the equation. In effect, they drive much cleaner alignment between the NCAA, the administrations of schools that make hire/fire decisions of coaches and the coaches themselves. Part of the reason that the black market for basketball talent exists is because of the extreme pressure put on coaches to win. These rules changes affect the demand equation by spreading out the consequences to a larger contingent of stakeholders and by making the NCAA more nimble in responding to issues as they come up. The pressure to win at all costs will still exist, but it will now be assumed by a broader set of stakeholders.

To put in terms that many of us can relate to, consider why people speed in their cars. There are speeding rules in place on the roads and they are very well understood by drivers. But the consequences for speeding are often not that great and the ability to enforce speed limits is only granted to a small number of law enforcement personnel who can only do so if they directly witness the infraction. In addition, if you happen to get caught speeding, only you - the driver - is held accountable.

Consider what might happen to the incidence of speed infractions if the following rules changes were made:

  • speeding became punishable with jail time no matter the severity
  • law enforcement can now accept phoned in reports from other drivers as actionable evidence of speeding
  • those caught speeding not only can be punished themselves, but whoever owns the car, whoever manufactured it and whoever insures it could all also be punished

It is certainly reasonable to expect that speeding would still happen under these new rules (we can debate the game theory of this in the comments below), but the stiffer consequences and the increase in odds of getting caught change the nature of how willing drivers are to engage in the behavior.

There is no doubt that many of these rules changes are effectively an attempt to cover the collective backside of Mark Emmert and the NCAA. That is why there seems to be more strength in “consequences” themed rules versus the student-athlete reforms. But the motivation for those rules doesn’t really change the fact that they probably will have a positive impact. I think that they will.

But there is more to be done.

The NCAA will have to build on this initial step in a few key ways. First, they will have to standardize rules for agency representation and interfaces with professional leagues for all players, not just for a select few who get put through a process that looks very corruptible. Second, they have to work with the NBA to change draft eligibility rules for high-schoolers. Third, they will need to create a more transparent and standardized platform for interacting with these grassroots (e.g. AAU) programs that house so many of the players that make up NCAA rosters. Simply addressing this issue by restricting access by NCAA coaches is clearly insufficient.

Still, these news rules are a start. The genie is now out of the bottle on certain things (e.g. agents) that always were going to have to be part of the solution but were to many “untouchable” assumptions. With some of these sacred cows falling out of the debate, new paths to reform may open.

For those of you who are really really cynical, I feel you. But I did want to point out one of the rule change details that I bet we can all agree is a good one:

Not too bad.