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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Mazurek: Finding the middle ground in the NCAA scandal

The recent FBI probe into the black market-esque operations surrounding college basketball has revealed the worst aspects of the NCAA.

But it has also brought out the worst of takes from fellow columnists Tobias Hoonhout and Ben Padanilam.

Both agree there is a problem, but they offer wildly different solutions. Hoonhout views the NCAA as a business and thinks it should pay its employees — the athletes. Padanilam feels collegiate athletes receive a fair amount of compensation via scholarships, clothing and travel opportunities, and thinks the NCAA should recapture its focus on amateurism.

I find it extremely ironic that while Hoonhout and Padanilam are both majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, it falls to me to bring in Aristotle’s golden mean.

Like many things in life, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle of two extreme views. Paying athletes like Hoonhout suggests will lead to problems with Title IX legislation and disenfranchises all but a select few athletes good enough to “go pro.” On the other hand, Padanilam’s quest to make amateurism “mean something again” reads as naive in the midst of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry.

So what would a good halfway point between the two extremes look like? I don’t claim to have the ultimate answer, but I do have two important starting points.

Let players have agents

The leaked findings from the FBI probe show that top high school athletes, especially in basketball, already have advisors who hold huge sway in deciding where the athletes go to college. Having advisors should not be illegal however — every professional athlete has an agent, if not a team of them, to help make career decisions.

The problem in the current college basketball landscape is that there is no oversight whatsoever of these “advisors.” If the NCAA legalized agents for prospective and current athletes, it would be better able to set rules up for how they can operate and what benefits are permissible or impermissible. If 30-year-olds who already have many aspects of their life worked out are allowed to have agents in deciding career moves, why shouldn’t 18-year-olds who are entering into perhaps the most important decision of their lives?

So here’s what the NCAA should do: Let players retain agents, but make those agents get NCAA-certified and revoke that certification if the agents breaks whatever rules the NCAA sets up.

For the players who generate massive interests, an agent — someone who you know is in your corner because you pay them to be — can be extremely helpful in navigating the arduous recruiting process, with pressure on all sides from coaches and family members.

Would there still be some agents who bend the rules? Of course, but if you allow players increased representation and require advisors to be NCAA-certified, the enforcement process is much easier and the backroom dealings will mostly vanish. If you’re an agent, why risk losing lots of money by dabbling in impermissible arrangements?

In hockey and baseball, the NCAA has actually softened its rules on agents as those sports usually have professional teams sign prospects at an earlier age. Why not for football and basketball?

Let athletes make money from their image

The biggest problem with a pure pay-for-play salary system is that the vast majority of college athletes do not generate any revenue for universities. If you pay each player what they’re worth, many will be left in the cold.

But, if you don’t pay players a salary, and instead let them make money off their own image (via sponsorships or signing autographs), it would allow universities to keep all their sports and the players who can’t generate that revenue aren’t directly affected.

If the NCAA lets the select few athletes popular enough to generate big-money sponsorships receive compensation for endorsements or autographs, it will greatly reduce the black-market activities that are ravaging the sport.

These behind-closed-doors deals exist because there is a proven economic market for collegiate athletics. Nothing the NCAA does will eliminate that market, and in fact, it’s in the NCAA’s interest to keep that market. But what the NCAA can and should do is to make that market legitimate it and regulate it.

It fairly compensates the players who generate the revenue and doesn’t negatively effect that players who don’t.

Indeed, this model is sometimes called the “Olympic model” because it’s what Olympic athletes use, since they cannot be paid directly to compete in their sport. If the Olympic system can move from a strictly amateur model to a healthy sponsorship-driven ecosystem, so can the NCAA.

Will these two changes fix the entire collegiate system? No. But they’re a better, and more realistic, solution than what has been proposed.