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Patrick Hruby

Extreme March Madness Makeover

A simple plan for fixing college basketball


Scandal. Hypocrisy. Naked, unadulterated greed.

Must be Selection Sunday.

Behind the Oz-like curtain of March Madness, big-time college basketball hides a money-making machine run amok, a wheezing, smoking, Rube Goldberg-esque contraption of sagging play, bloated sponsorship deals and long-since-forgotten academics - all overseen by an NCAA whose capacity for capricious and arbitrary rule would make King George III blush.

Consider:

* The University of Minnesota bans itself from this year's postseason in the wake of massive academic fraud.

* The NCAA signs a record-breaking $6.2 billion broadcast deal with CBS, then promptly suspends a number of high-profile players - including Michigan's Jamal Crawford and St. John's Erick Barkley - for accepting gifts of high school tuition money.

* Auburn's Chris Porter takes $2,500 from an agent's middle man to prevent his mother's eviction from her home and is subsequently suspended; in response, Louisiana State coach John Brady has undercover campus police shadow two of his own players, claiming "the only time we're not watching them is when they go to their rooms on campus . . . we're trying to keep them safe from agents."

* Overall quality of play continues to slip as more and more players leave school early for the NBA.

"We're dealing in monumental hypocrisy right now," says former LSU coach Dale Brown. "For people to continue to say that this is amateur athletics is ludicrous, particularly with the new television deal. The NCAA has been passed by. They need to redo the whole thing, or close the doors. Or else the greed will devour them."

But don't get Brown wrong. He still loves the game. And so do we.

We love the passion, the drama, the upsets. We love filling and refilling out our brackets until UConn blurs with UCLA and Duke looks more like Duquesne We even love Billy Packer. (Well, maybe not.)

In fact, we love it all so much that we've come up with a plan. A simple plan. One that slashes scandal, eliminates hypocrisy and ensures the best possible basketball - and as an added bonus, leaves all three hairs in Purdue coach Gene Keady's comb-over mercifully intact.

Ready? Here it is:

Drop the class attendance requirement for college basketball players. Take the student out of 'student-athlete.'

"I can't fathom that," says George Washington coach Tom Penders. "This is intercollegiate athletics. That's absurd."

Absurd?

Absurd is an academic institution handing Penders a reported $450,000 annually - $394,000 more than the average college professor makes - to tutor a dozen vertically gifted students in the subtle nuances of a 2-3 zone.

Absurd is Penders earning his fair market value as a basketball coach while a cartel of aged lawyers and bureaucrats suckles from a $6.2 billion network teat and prevents Penders' players - er, "student-athletes" - from doing the same.

Absurd is an "intercollegiate athletic" system that serves as a de facto professional minor league.

Absurd is cloaking the entire wretched affair in the tattered drapes of amateurism, an antiquated ideal invented in the 19th century by well-to-do English rowers who didn't like rubbing elbows with the soot-stained set.

Big-time college basketball is rife with absurdities. Our plan isn't one of them.

But don't take our word. Ask Concordia College sports information director Jerry Pyle, from whom we've borrowed - pilfered, really - our fundamental premise. A former basketball player at Minnesota, Pyle has spent more than a decade hashing out a lengthy proposal for cleaning up college athletics. (See www.cord.edu/faculty/pyle/pedagogy/speeches/csreform1.shtml for more.)

"What the NCAA calls radical reform is dropping the rule against having four-color recruiting brochures, then saying, 'We've really made changes,' " Pyle says. "But not making a break from the link between going to school and having these teams is just tinkering. You're just going to end up with the same mess."

THE PLAN

Our plan merely tweaks and adds to Pyle's principles. How does it work? Here are the four basic elements:

(1) Drop the class requirement for college basketball players.

Dropping the class requirement means just that: no more school, no more books, no more academic advisers' dirty looks. Stop pretending that big-time college basketball somehow enhances the educational experience and start acknowledging the sport for the 40-plus hour-a-week (with travel) job that it is. Under our plan, players will be salaried university employees. Period.

(2) Allow colleges to own and operate their basketball programs as professional minor league teams.

No sweeping reform here. Georgetown still will own the Hoyas' basketball squad, which will still play at MCI Center. Maryland will still own the Terps. And so on. As Pyle points out, universities already own hotels, restaurants and medical facilities that directly serve their campuses. Basketball teams simply will be one more investment - and with programs free to keep their logos, facilities and tradition intact, most of them will remain profitable investments.

(3) Let players and teams negotiate a legal salary arrangement, one that offers educational opportunities to interested players.

If players will be paid, then how to go about it? Well, schools could agree to keep wages at a fixed level, which is essentially what they do with scholarships. However, that would be collusion - and without the crutch of amateurism or an unlikely congressional exemption, would hardly stand up to the inevitable barrage of antitrust lawsuits.

Schools also could agree to an unfettered free market, allowing players to sign with the highest bidder. Of course, that would allow a few rich schools to drive up salaries and hoard the best players, which in turn would ruin competitive parity, drive poorer schools out of business and devalue the product as a whole.

(Worse still, it would give endowment-rich Harvard an excellent shot at fielding the nation's top team.)

What Pyle proposes is to have schools and a certified players' union negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that regulates wages and working conditions, just like the major professional leagues. We agree. And if we were negotiating, here's how we'd set things things up:

Establish a salary cap system to contain wages and ensure a more level playing field.

According to Pyle, schools already operate under a salary cap of sorts - if you have a Division I limit of 13 basketball scholarships, and your scholarship value is $20,000 per, then your salary cap is $260,000. Under our plan, little will change, except that players will now be allowed to negotiate their fair worth. The Allen Iversons of the world will earn more than the Dugan Fifes, and if Penders wants to pay SirValiant Brown $499,999 of an allotted $500,000 cap, he'll be free to do so.

Allow salary caps to vary by conference.

Schools that can't or won't spend the money it takes to roll with the big boys won't have to. The Big Ten, for example, might have a $1 million per-team cap while the Atlantic 10's might be closer to $500,000. Conferences will be realigned accordingly.

Sign players to two-year contracts; players may play for a maximum of four full seasons and be no older than 24.

At the college level, two seasons is usually enough time to sort out stars from role players, contributors from scrubs. Two-year deals will let talented players cash in, allow disgruntled players to seek a better situation elsewhere (without sitting out for a year) and permit coaches to jettison dead weight. And while those deals provide a measure of season-to-season continuity, a four-season maximum coupled with an age limit will ensure that the college game remains an entry-level minor league - and not the province of thirtysomething NBA washouts.

Have the standard player contract include two free years of tuition at a team's affiliated school.

Players will be allowed to redeem this tuition at any time, provided they meet the school's academic admittance requirements. If a player does not do so, he will be allowed to put the tuition toward remedial courses or classes at a nearby junior college.

(4) Recast the NCAA in the model of a professional league office.

Our NCAA will not concern itself with the distasteful, voyeuristic business of peeping into players' high school transcripts and summer league connections. Rather, it will be charged with enforcing the salary cap, regulating player safety, staging the championship tournament, and so on. Moreover, it will still get to negotiate gargantuan television contracts - which means its executives will still get to tool around in their $1.7 million Learjets.

BENEFITS

So who wins under our plan? Better question: Who doesn't?

* Players win because they're allowed to cash in on their fair market value as entertainers. Instead of confronting what writer Charles P. Pierce calls the 'indefensible options of: a) playing for free; b) playing for whatever can be grabbed under the table; c) trying to make the NBA,' college basketball's indentured servants will have all the earning opportunities that college-age actors, musicians and minor league baseball players take for granted. Moreover, players with no interest in a college education won't have to pretend otherwise, while those seeking degrees will be able to pursue them at their own (and more reasonable) pace.

* Coaches win because they get to focus fully on the one and only thing they are paid to do: win basketball games. This means no more SAT-sweating, GPA-fretting, or NCAA-compliance-bloodletting for a group of "educators" whose Socratic teaching method typically boils down to a call for more wind sprints. Coaches who are in it to save lives, educate young men and redress 400-plus years of racial segregation will still get to do so; the rest will be free to do their jobs.

* Schools win because scandal disappears. Without amateurism - and sans the unfortunate necessity of admitting unmotivated and unprepared student-athletes into a serious academic environment - the unsightly blemishes of illegal player benefits, shady recruiting and Minnesota-style academic fraud all vanish. Meanwhile, successful basketball teams will still generate healthy dollops of school pride. Not to mention school revenue.

* The NCAA wins because finally, mercifully, it gets to wear the white hat. AAU witch hunts, Byzantine rule books and protracted legal battles with towel-chomping miscreants have done little to alter the association's image as an intercollegiate Politburo; under our plan, a leaner, meaner, more just and more appropriate NCAA will busy itself with honorable goals like player safety, drug enforcement and squeezing CBS dry.

* The networks win because they get a better product, and the NBA wins because it gets better players. There's little doubt that academic requirements and early defections weaken college basketball. In our system, the game will be open to the best players, and not just those that can crack 800 on the SAT. Moreover, players who could use an extra year of seasoning before jumping to the NBA will have some financial incentive to stay in school. So to speak.

OBJECTIONS

Some said man would never walk on the moon. Others claimed a former Arena League quarterback could never lead his historically hapless NFL franchise to a Super Bowl title. Will our plan arouse a chorus of naysayers? You bet. So before we shake up the system, let's address some of the possible objections:

The plan is anti-education

"College basketball represents short-term athletics and long-term future in terms of a career," says Jim Haney, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "Ninety-nine percent of the kids in high school are never going to play on an NBA team. They're going to need an education."

Maybe so. But do they need it right now? And who are Haney, the NABC and the NCAA to effectively decree that almost every 18-year-old with an NBA dream must first go to college? They say it's anti-education to let gifted basketball players choose the appropriate time, place and level of their secondary education; we say it's anti-education to deny them that choice.

"If you're a kid who thinks he needs two or three years of development and you don't want to go to college now, well, we don't think it's horrible that baseball players don't go to college," Pyle says. "We think it's the American dream. If you make it, fine. If you don't, you're sure glad you gave it a shot."

The plan creates Title IX problems

As a matter of law, Title IX forbids sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. This means university athletic departments must give relatively equal support to their men's and women's teams - in coaching, travel allowances, publicity, and so on. As such, gender equity advocates will claim our plan requires the creation of a women's minor league. But Pyle disagrees.

"If your team is not an intercollegiate team of student-athletes, the law doesn't apply to you," he says. "If a university was to go out and buy a minor league baseball team, they wouldn't have to go out and buy a women's softball team as an investment, because these aren't student-athletes we're talking about. They're minor league players. If you read the law, it's designed to address student-athletes ."

Fans won't watch "mercenary" players who aren't students

Do you think Tar Heels fans tune in to watch a merry band of hardworking college students who just want to give a little something back to the grand 'ol university? Or to feel all warm and fuzzy about the nation's university system? Please. Let's be honest: If fans really cared about the "student" in student-athlete, then ESPN would be broadcasting history exams. As it is, the only time fans take any interest in academics is when it relates to player eligibility. The masses want good basketball, no more and no less, and that's exactly what our plan gives them.

Most 18-year-olds don't know what's best for them

Some folks - mostly old, rich ones with a vested interest in preserving the status quo - are going to question the wisdom of letting teen-age athletes unionize. Should the keys to the college basketball cash cow be entrusted to a group of inexperienced adolescents?

"These kids are going to be represented by smart agents," Pyle says. "We approach this like we have to be some paternalistic overseer, we act like they're idiots, but all over the country 19-year-old baseball players negotiate $5 million contracts coming out of high school. And nobody says they shouldn't be allowed to do that."

If you're old enough to vote, you're old enough to make informed choices about the rest of your future.

Schools will fudge on the salary cap

Granted, this is a distinct possibility. It happens in pro sports all the time. But if a school like Arizona decides to go $250,000 over the Pac-10 cap, the NCAA will be there to punish it - perhaps with fines, probation or even a dollar-for-dollar, NBA-style luxury tax.

"And if schools are going to cheat on the salary cap, other schools are going to get ticked off and not play them," Pyle adds. "So who are they going to play? They're screwed."

Some teams will have to shut down

Pity. Hundreds of small businesses fail every day in this country. If a school can't turn a profit in the cash-soaked world of college basketball - or needs a monopoly-driven wage conspiracy to do so - then perhaps it should stick to the education racket.

THE LAST WORD

Could it happen? Would leaders of the college game ever discard the farcical facade of amateurism and recognize their sport as the wildly lucrative minor league it has become?

It's doubtful.

Adopting our plan would require university presidents to stand up to alumni, boosters and trustee boards, something they're loath to do. It would require schools like Louisville, which earned a reported $6.8 million from its basketball program in 1995-96, to share some of their wealth with a labor pool that currently works for next to nothing. And it would require coaches, chancellors and athletic directors alike to relinquish control - in essence, giving their jealously guarded fiefdoms over to the serfs.

"A minor league system would probably be more sincere and honorable than what's going on now," says Brown. "It would help the game get back to something refreshing and something we all like. But it's wishful thinking."

He's probably right. But when it comes to March Madness, isn't wishful thinking the point?

Original article published in The Washington Times