Why the Recent Recommendations for Reforming College Basketball are a Step in the Right Direction

Last October, the United States was rocked by an FBI and DOJ probe into corruption in college basketball. The resulting report detailed a number of ongoing schemes, including bribes paid to players by shoe and apparel companies and bribes paid to coaches to steer players to certain financial advisers. As a response to the government investigation, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) established an Independent Commission on College Basketball, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to make recommendations on “legislation, policies, actions and structure(s) to protect the integrity of college sports.” After six months of research, the committee produced a 53 page report which concluded that “[t]he levels of corruption and deception [in men’s college basketball] are now at a point that they threaten the very survival of the college game as we know it,” and outlined a number of recommendations for changing the college basketball system. It is now up to the NCAA to decide whether it will implement the recommendations.

The proposed reforms by the Commission have been met with great skepticism. Critics argue that the report only tinkers at the margins and fails to get to the root causes of the corruption and other problems in college basketball. (For a sampling of the critical responses, see here and here and here). These criticisms go too far. Fixing the complex problems that permeate college basketball will take some time. The reforms outlined in the report, though imperfect, are a step in the right direction, and the NCAA should embrace and adopt them. Among the many proposals advanced by the Commission, the following reforms, if implemented by the NCAA, will have an immediate impact on decreasing corruption in collegiate athletics:

  • Independent enforcement branch. One of the reasons corruption has become widespread in college basketball is that the NCAA’s enforcement body is too unpredictable and inadequate to deter violations. In many cases, the process takes years, with punishments imposed long after the departure of the bad actors. As a result, the NCAA, as an enforcement entity, had little credibility and no meaningful deterrent effect. Creating an independent enforcement arm, as the Committee recommended, would demonstrate the NCAA’s commitment to enforcement and promote consistency, fairness, and credibility—as even critics of other aspects of the report have acknowledged.
  • Independent adjudication of NCAA violations. The NCAA’s system for adjudicating alleged rules violations is similarly flawed: members of NCAA member institutions volunteer to sit as adjudicators, despite not having any training, and being potentially biased given their affiliation with the NCAA. The Commission recommended that the NCAA create an independent adjudicative arm to resolve complex and serious cases, with panels composed of professional adjudicators from the American Arbitration Association. This change would also bring consistency and credibility to the process, and increase the likelihood that violators of the NCAA rules are held accountable.
  • Harsher penalties. One of the main explanations for widespread corruption in college basketball is simply that the rewards outweigh the expected costs—not only because the probability of being caught and punished is low, but also because the penalties themselves are not severe enough. The Commission therefore recommended significant changes in the penalties imposed on NCAA member institutions for certain violations, including most notably a five-year ban from the NCAA tournament and the loss of all associated revenues for member institutions’ programs found to have engaged in systematic, severe, and repeated violations of NCAA rules.
  • Accountability of top administrators. The Commission advocated an expansion of accountability from coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents. Specifically, the Commission recommended rules that require colleges to include in the employment contracts of administrators and coaches an individual obligation to cooperate with the NCAA investigations and submission to NCAA enforcement proceedings, and to certify annually that they have conducted due diligence on their programs. Making the top college administrators accountable would go a long way toward ensuring that member institutions are free of corruption and compliant with the rules.
  • Willingness to consider reforms that allow student athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness. Under the current system, because of NCAA amateurism rules, athletes cannot profit off of their name, image, or likeness with private third-party companies. This rule prohibits student athletes from accepting sponsorship agreements in any form. The Committee did not explicitly recommend any changes in this area—which is one of the things that critics emphasized as a significant weakness in the report. But there are a number of hints throughout the report and Rice’s press conference that provide hope for change on this issue. Rice personally endorsed the idea of allowing athletes to earn income from their own name, image, and likeness, though she expressed a desire to wait until pending litigation on this issue was resolved. And the report itself noted that a number of Commission members were interested in reforms in this area, perhaps moving toward something similar to the Olympic model, where athletes are eligible to receive sponsorship agreements from outside parties. Such a system would significantly decrease the incentives for many student athletes to turn to the black market for illicit funds.

These reforms would be a solid start to the long, hard process of ridding U.S. college basketball of corruption. Creating independent enforcement and adjudication branches, harsher penalties for violators, and more responsibility for top administrators would, individually and in combination, increase deterrence. Yet while I do not share the critics’ dismissal of the report’s recommendations as pointless window-dressing, I do share their view that in the longer term, fixing the corruption problem in college sports will require changes that enable athletes to profit off of their name, image, or likeness. It is difficult to foresee a significant decrease in corruption in college basketball until players have access to a larger share of the pie. But as a starting point, the Commission’s reforms are a step in the right direction to combating corruption in the sport, and the NCAA should adopt them.

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