Op-ed: Condi Rice finally meets her match: Amateurism

May 10, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

There are few Stanford professors—or anyone in the Stanford community—as accomplished in sports as Condoleezza Rice.

In addition to her high-level political and academic career, Rice, once a competitive ice skater and a noted sports fan, has also served on the College Football Playoff selection committee and became one of the first female members of Augusta National Golf Club (home of the Masters). Last fall, NCAA President Mark Emmert tabbed Rice to head the Commission on College Basketball, which was formed in response to the announcement of an FBI investigation into recruiting practices in men’s college basketball. The Commission was to study the issues raised in the FBI’s investigation and suggest “meaningful” reform for college basketball.

Two weeks ago, the Commission delivered its 53-page report to the NCAA, with Rice announcing its findings. And yet, for all of its efforts, the Commission—led at least symbolically by Rice—misdiagnosed the root of the problems in college sports and ordered remedies that are largely impractical or require the cooperation of third parties that have little incentive (or legal obligation) to cooperate with the NCAA.

To understand the Commission’s report requires an understanding of the “problem” it sought to fix. The “problem,” if it can be called one, was the revelation of an interlocking web of college coaches, agents, apparel company executives, and others who caused hundreds of thousands of dollars be transmitted to prospective and current college basketball players for, well, being really good at basketball. In most other industries, these payments are termed “corporate headhunting”; when tech companies go to war over the most talented Stanford computer science majors, no one bats an eye.

But when the money flows to elite college basketball recruits—who are disproportionately African-American—in exchange for their commitment to attend a certain school, wear a certain apparel brand, or use a certain agent, it’s “corruption” that must be squelched.

If forestalling these lucrative relationships between players, agents, and shoe companies was the Commission’s goal, its recommendations were unhelpful and uninspiring.

The report demands an end to the “one-and-done” phenomenon, which it sees as the core contagion in college basketball. As the Commission emphasizes, however, the “one-and-done” is a product of the NBA’s draft eligibility rule, which can only be changed by the NBA and its players association—neither of which has any obligation to implement its directives. Further, assuming the NBA does permit high school graduates to enter the draft, college players will still be able leave school after a year.

The other scapegoat cited by the Commission is “non-scholastic” basketball, by which it means AAU and other club-based competition. The report suggests the NCAA, in coordination with USA Basketball and others, enact an elaborate regulatory regime over these non-scholastic leagues that would require financial disclosures and other unpalatable certification requirements. Whether AAU leagues and apparel companies, which are connected with but operate independently of the NCAA, would comply with these standards appears questionable at best due to the financial incentive in continuing to operate without oversight. Further, even if implementing this prong of the Commission’s recommendations was realistic, it does nothing to address the fundamental realities underpinning college basketball’s perceived crisis.

At the heart of the matter is this: The financial allure of a professional basketball career is powerful, a fact the Commission was powerless to change. But it’s even more powerful when those players, who clearly have economic value, are prevented from capitalizing on it while they play in the NCAA. That is, when your school limits itself to paying the costs of your education despite you generating hundreds of millions in revenue, $100,000 from an apparel company is perhaps your only opportunity to earn anywhere close to your market value. And unless or until the NCAA overhauls its amateurism rules—whether independently or at the behest of a federal court—the same “corruption” it decries now will continue to exist.

Put simply, money talks louder than NCAA regulations. Always has, always will.

It’s difficult to pin the Commission’s overall failure solely on Rice; she was only one of its 12 members. But she was the Chair, and the buck stops with her. Rightly or wrongly, responsibility for the Commission’s inability to diagnose the NCAA’s draconian and anachronistic amateurism rules as the ultimate problems in college basketball falls on her shoulders.

Cameron Miller ’16

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