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Kentucky Athletics: Is The NCAA Serious About Meaningful Change?

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One apparent side benefit of all this recent Sturm und Drang about the off-season specter of secession from the NCAA, raised by John Calipari among others, is that it seems to have prompted the NCAA to at least give lip service to the idea of cleaning up it's outdated and often unenforceable rules.  That sounds like a good thing, but there are many competing interests in the NCAA that get in the way of meaningful change.

Over recent years, the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" has grown ever more difficult to take for smaller schools.  They see the bigger schools with giant athletics budgets and name coaches draw all the great players, yet are forced to compete against these teams as if there were no difference between them.  Increasingly, smaller schools feel forced to divert resources to facilities and other athletic department priorities in order to remain competitive enough to put fans in the stands, a catch-22 that has been driving faculties crazy, and creating rifts between athletic and academic departments that are only getting more difficult to manage.

Against this backdrop, we have seen an unprecedented amount of NCAA lawlessness lately, primarily among power conference members, along with many controversial decisions by the NCAA such as the Enes Kanter, Terelle Pryor et. al. and Cam Newton matters.  The old saying, "hard cases make bad law" comes to mind, and we have seen worrying signs of hard NCAA rules cases creating precedents that will only be confusing when the NCAA once again flies in the face of common sense and declares that they are not precedents at all -- until they are.

USA Today has an interesting story this morning on how all this swirling dissatisfaction and commentary about secession is motivating the NCAA to act, or perhaps more correctly talk about acting, which is at least a change from the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil attitudes that had been holding sway in Indianapolis.

Here are some of the proposals, often created by "think tanks" of compliance and athletics department professionals at specific schools, that seem to be in the offing:

  • Eliminating rules that are impossible or surpassingly difficult to enforce.  Examples given are rules about texting/emailing/telephoning recruits.

    I think this could be good, but I do worry about excessive contacts.  The NCAA seems to be obsessed by this right now, and that's a bad thing.  "Burn" phones and other technologies make this rule much harder to enforce for those determined to cheat.  Perhaps the texting and telephone call limits would be better enforced by parents, and removed from the NCAA rulebooks.
  • Create "safe harbor" provisions for schools.  That is to say if school compliance and athletics departments are doing all the things they are supposed to do, unethical conduct by a coach or assistant that was intended to thwart a school's honest compliance efforts would not be blamed on the schools, but on the perpetrators.

    This seems like a no-brainer.  At some point, we have to admit that efforts at compliance should only be a good-faith effort, not something enforced like a strict liability law.  Holding schools who have clearly made a good-faith effort to live by the rules accountable for the misdeed of bad actors in their employ has never made much sense, especially when it is within the power of the NCAA to affect the employment opportunities of these scofflaws at other NCAA institutions. 

    That's enough power to sever the schools from liability when unethical coaches misbehave, if institutions make a genuine effort at compliance that would be effective but for deliberate deception.
  • Ease restrictions on contact with agents.  This is a tough call. The common thinking is to let players have agents as long as no money changes hands. 

    The problem with this is that it is going to create an "underclass" of agents that will interpret this laxity to mean that it's okay for money to change hands as long as nobody knows about it.  I'm not talking about your big agencies, here, but your individual AAU coaches who want to be agents and catch a ride on the Anthony Davis or Harrison Barnes express.

    Big-time agencies could afford to work for free against future agreements, but little guys trying to crack into the agency gig would not be able to do that.  These are the guys that have been, and continue to be a giant thorn in the NCAA's side.  Somehow, this must be addressed, as it isn't going away on its own.
  • Increasing the value of grant-in-aids to cover the perceived gap of around $3,000 that currently exists between what a scholarship actually pays for and what the student-athlete actually needs to cover expenses.

    The reality is that this is a difficult problem that is exacerbated by the "haves, have-nots" discussed earlier, as well as ancillary federal regulations like Title IX that require funding of women's scholarships to the same level as men, and women's athletics tend to be net revenue consumers, not revenue generators.

    With that said, lots of schools offer money in excess of an academic scholarship to students as an incentive to get them to enroll with their school all the time.  So what we have here is an unequal application of the rules where the student-athlete, most of whom "go pro in something other than sports," as the NCAA is so fond of saying, gets short shrift.  This probably delights most academics, but it does seem passing unfair to most people.

There are many more things that need to be done to improve the rules setup, and although some people see the NCAA break-up as inevitable, there are quite a few things standing in the way of such an eventuality -- not the least of which is that every one of these decisions would have to be made by the academic side, and the academic administrators have more to worry about than the athletics department.  They will not likely allow the coaches or conference commissioners to lead them down the primrose path to a public relations disaster. 

Right now, the NCAA as an organization absorbs most of the blame for perceived inconsistency and excessive regulation, but if a break-up takes place, that burden will shift to the breakway schools, and if you think they can do a better job, you are kidding yourself.  After all, they currently have the same say in how things are run as they would in a breakaway league, even if to a lesser degree, and they are no less subject to human foibles and unsavory motivation than anyone else.  The haves and have-nots would still exist, just on a different level.

Much of this is predictable off-season navel-gazing, but there are a number of good things that can come out of all this introspection, the most likely of which is better assignment of blame (which has always seemed unfair) and fewer unenforceable or excessively resource-hungry rules.  I hold little hope for the additional athletics stipend, as it seems the problems there are intractable in the current setup without some serious revenue-sharing.

Still, there are some good things that can be done more or less easily.  Let's get the low-hanging fruit now and worry about the tougher problems later.