Pack up the NCAA rulebook. Better yet, burn it. Not because it’s a joke — although it is. It’s archaic, outdated and unnecessary. Kinda like a phone book. It served its time as the guidebook for amateur sports, but that was before the adults decided to turn college athletics into the best, and soon to be most lucrative, minor league sports program in the country.
People can rail all they want about the rogue agents and cheaters getting away with breaking the rules. They can fume about how, after five years of its own exhaustive investigation — an inquiry backed by an assist by the FBI, no less — the NCAA, via its Independent Accountability Resolution Process, essentially deemed Louisville and head coach Rick Pitino not guilty. Feel free to gnash teeth over the toothless punishments — the university was put on probation and smacked with a $5,000 fine (or .0139 percent of its $36 million conference payout this year) and Pitino was “exonerated” by the panel. Go ahead and accurately read into this decision, coupled with the equally feckless punishment for Memphis, that there is nothing to fear — not even fear itself — when it comes to NCAA enforcement. It’s all true.
But if you want to find the real culprits and rail at the right people, redirect your ire from the coaches in Las Vegas hotel rooms whispering about $100,000 deals. Take aim instead at the folks in sharply tailored suits or pencil skirts cannibalizing one another in the conference rooms and negotiating billion-dollar media rights deals.
They created this. Greed has consumed college sports at the highest level, pulling down the curtain once and for all. There is no semblance of amateurism anymore, or collegiality in college sports. Sign the best deal. Use NIL collectives to buy the best players. Win at all costs, and whatever cost it takes. That’s it. That’s where we are.
Here’s the chain of command: The assistant wants to please the head coach. The head coach needs to win in order to please the athletic director. The athletic director needs to run a profitable department to keep the president happy. The president needs their school to be attractive to stay in the good graces of the conference commissioner. Now you tell me: Who’s going to worry about a pesky rule when there’s billions at stake?
There is a beautiful — and only in the world of the NCAA — irony in the fact that the IARP designed to buttress the enforcement process has, instead exposed it for the useless endeavor it is. Outsiders, paid by the billable hour, have looked at NC State, Memphis and Louisville and shrugged in each instance. No major penalties. No coaches shoved into the corner for bad behavior. Just a few fines, harmless probation, and a move along, nothing to see here. The FBI once threatened college basketball, “We have your playbook.’’ It didn’t realize that the IARP would come along and go backdoor on the feds.
There was a time when people cared about laws and scofflaws. The NABC once convened an emergency meeting at the Final Four in the fallout of Kelvin Sampson’s demise at Indiana. His offense? He texted recruits too many times, and boy, were people offended. I’ll admit it. I was one of them. It was such an easy rule to follow, and Sampson broke it — twice. It seemed arrogant and impudent. I just can’t get so upset anymore. I’m numb to it.
How can you punish Louisville for funneling $100,000 through an Adidas rep to lure Brian Bowen to school when high school recruit Bronny James is starring in a Nike ad with his father? If Oscar Tshiebwe can make $2.75 million at Kentucky, who needs to worry about an Eddie Sutton-sanctioned Emory envelope to deliver the goods?
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If conference commissioners want to pillage one another, devour tradition, slash rivalries and threaten to transform the NCAA Tournament so they can make even more money, it’s hard to get revved up about a recruiting violation.
That’s not to say this is all headed in a good direction. Because it’s not. In lieu of rules and guidelines there is anarchy. That rarely ends well. There will be fallout. We will — and already have — lost good people. Jay Wright, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski all retired. With less fanfare, so did Bob McKillop and Rick Byrd, two of the truest gentlemen in the profession. Tom Izzo may not be ready to retire, but he also may actually combust into a pile of ash on the sideline, sheer frustration the only lighter fluid necessary.
Someday a player will sign an NIL deal and fail to deliver the goods. The age-old benefit of the doubt — they’re just college kids — won’t buoy them because they will be viewed as semi-pros, if not downright professionals. I sat in Penn State’s Beaver Stadium on Saturday and heard people boo Sean Clifford when he took the field late in the fourth quarter. He had a lousy game. No one will argue that. He’s also a sixth-year senior who’s done nothing but represent Penn State in a positive light. He doesn’t even have the big NIL deals. But someone sometime soon will be paid to play and then not play well. Then what? The NCAA is hellbent on making rules to keep coaches out of NIL deals when, in fact, they need them in the room. The deals are already being brokered. At least have a person in the room who cares about the kid.
A few people, the few coaches who hold onto their integrity like a prized possession, and the handful of decent folks in the NCAA headquarters, have thought about the consequences. Those folks are just shouting into the wind now. Their voices drowned in the cha-ching of the cash register. Hush it, old man. Get with the times.
The NCAA is currently undergoing a “transformation,” with a committee charged with creating a new, streamlined form of the bureaucracy. Might as well disband the committee. The NCAA already has been transformed. It’s a semi-pro production now.
We’ll see if it’s for the better.
(Top photo: Jamie Rhodes / USA Today)