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NCAA Basketball: The NBA And NCAA Are Almost Perfect For Each Other

The NCAA and NBA have a symbiotic relationship. The talk about changing that in a fundamental way is just that — talk.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated has some interesting observations about Mark Emmert's recent comments. Here's the crux of Glockner's biscuit:

Given the NCAA option remains the only reasonable one for high school players, Emmert needs to find a way to further entrench that position while appeasing everyone who needs to be appeased, not potentially weaken it in the process and be blind to the NCAA’s role in the bigger American basketball picture.

I disagree. What the NCAA needs to do, leaving aside the manifold problems with it's bylaws, is to address a relatively narrow range of issues — "walking around" money for players, insurance issues to make sure they are compensated for a career-ending injury and a few other related matters. Trying to take ownership of "the NCAA's role in the bigger American basketball picture" is simply not something the organization is qualified or prepared to do, and if they tried, they'd make a mess of it.

The American sports mind has produced a dichotomy that cannot be overcome in the near-term by marketing; that of the professional vs. the amateur. Despite claims that this is a distinction without a difference in today's NCAA, and that college basketball is really just a farm system for the NBA, the public perception is still very much amateur vs. pro.

Yes, the cynical among us, and the sportswriters, see this hypocrisy as a problem, but it's largely lost on the general public. If you ask them if they care about the plight of the student-athlete and throw in a description that paints the NCAA as greedy money-grubbers getting free labor on the backs of poor minorities risking their well-being, of course the public will react with negativity. But when you point out the fact that the athletes, in fact, get a lot of benefits and money spent on them that the critics refuse to acknowledge, people have less sympathy.

No matter what happens, college basketball will always be popular if only for the NCAA Tournament, which is far and away the biggest driver of the popularity it does enjoy. Emmert understands that paying athletes very quickly becomes problematic, a point which Glockner rightly points out:

There should have been very little reaction to Emmert’s reiterating that the NCAA has no interest in paying athletes. That should go without saying from his and the university president’s standpoint. Beyond South Park-fueled commentary ("If we pay them, how will we make all the money?"), the whole student-athlete concept retains its roots in a strategy to avoid athletes being considered employees and exposing schools to a litany of workman’s compensation and liability issues.

That's right, but there's more to it than that. Despite many people cynically noting that the concept of amateurism in the NCAA sense is long dead, that abstraction still sits firmly in the public mind. The public perfectly well knows about the shenanigans behind the scenes in college basketball, but is willing to overlook it in order to enjoy the spectacle. That's not going to change.

The NBA, on the other hand, needs the NCAA to prove their incoming players, and they have provided the "one and done" rule to ensure not only the viability of their farm system (the NCAA), but to ensure that they can make better personnel decisions with fewer Kwame Brown scenarios. Glockner correctly points out that the NCAA suffered under the "preps to pros" rule, and the NBA rode to the rescue of their farm system/proving ground with the "one and done." Of course, that wasn't purely out of altruism — the NBA also suffered under the previous rule that allowed players to go straight to the NBA out of high school in the form of many underdeveloped prospects tanking rather than becoming the next Kobe Bryant.

No matter what, the professional sports leagues are driving this train. Even if the NBA never manages to push through "2 and through" or "3 and out," they will live with "one and done" because it is better for the NBA than allowing players to come straight out of high school. Obviously, the NBA player's union could try to change that, but they seem okay, or at least dispassionate, with the compromise that currently exists.

The NCAA needs to focus on itself in the same way the NBA does. The two organizations, right now, have a symbiotic arrangement that provides talented players for a short time to colleges for the unspoken but obvious purpose of preparing them for the pros. The NCAA profits, and the NBA mitigates risk in contracting. It's not ideal for the various competing interests — the NBA ownership would like a longer college apprenticeship, the NBA players profess to prefer none, and colleges desperately want at least two years — but it serves as a useful, if imperfect, compromise.

If the NBA, over time, views the NCAA pipeline as less and less beneficial to its own needs, there will be more motivation for the league to explore other legitimate options to the NCAA, whether it’s really blowing out the D-League, starting club structures similar to Europe, somehow utilizing Europe’s club structures as an approved farm system, etc. Any of those options successfully pursued in full would be a long-term disaster for the NCAA. A systematic weakening and possibly eventual elimination of men’s basketball as a big-money product would essentially put it out of business.

True, but why would it? The D-league is the perfect example of why this won't work. It is seen as a place where careers go to die, not to be born. That's why you don't see high-school players flocking there rather than to college to spend one or two years of, to hear the critics tell it, unpaid indentured servitude. Yes, the odd player does come up from the D-league and have success in the NBA, but they are so rare that not a single one comes to mind.

Also, the idea that the NBA can just flip a switch and produce a viable farm system is just wrong, even if Mark Emmert may make idiotic comments encouraging them to do so. Creating a farm system from scratch is both unnecessary and expensive, and the NBA isn't interested, whether or not Emmert actually thinks it is a good idea. It treats the development league as a bastard step-child anyway, and if it went away, I doubt the NBA would notice.

The NBA is not going to cooperate with Europe for the primary reason that Europe is a competitor, not another player with a common economic interest. The NCAA is, on the other hand, exactly what the NBA wants — an entity that feeds it talent without costing it money. From the NBA's standpoint, the NCAA is the perfect player development system with it's own high-tech training and sports medicine to develop and maintain their players-to-be, their own marketing, an iconic tournament to showcase the NBA's upcoming talent and establish name recognition, and a place with a raison d'être filled with idealistic platitudes to help them promote their "amateur" athletes while they prepare for professional careers. And all this at absolutely zero cost to the NBA — how does it get better than that?

There is no fundamental economic argument that makes sense for the NBA to try to replace the NCAA, regardless of what the NCAA wants. The NBA is content if not happy with the status quo, and the NCAA's main problem is how to deal with the haves and the have-nots, which is really the discussion that's coming to a head. No matter how that shakes out, the NBA stands to lose absolutely nothing, and may actually gain if the BCS schools obtain a degree of separation from the NCAA.

But that's a subject for another time.