ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DOLLAR: NCAA SCANDAL POSES OLD QUESTIONS, NO NEW ANSWERS

BY AASIM CUNNINGHAM

The cat is out of the bag. The FBI blew the top off of a 2-year investigation into corruption in college basketball. The investigation uncovered that at least one multi-national athletic wear company has been sculpting the landscape of NCAA and pro- basketball by disrupting the otherwise pure ecosystem of amateur basketball.

So far, there have been 10 federal indictments, 4 high level coaches charged with crimes, 1 legendary coach fired- sorry, “suspended”, and the athletic director of a Power 5 school being let go. The investigation is not over, thus more blood will likely be drawn, and more heads will roll.

The ecosystem consists of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), youth basketball coaches, skills trainers, high school coaches, student advisors, the student athletes, and anyone else one could imagine contributing to the success of an emerging star. As opposed to bribing players directly, Jim Gatto -formerly of Adidas- infiltrated the recruiting process by instead bribing players’ advisors to persuade them to attend certain collegiate programs outfitted by Adidas.

Those truly immersed in the hoops world are shocked not by the actual events, but by the fact that they have finally been exposed. The NCAA’s response will be so anti-climactically predictable. They will draw as little blood as possible from the true culprits, while protecting their pockets. But rather than crying over spilled milk, it’s more productive to discuss real solutions to this problem.

The front running solution? Paying the players. This idea was considered blasphemous until 15 years ago, when UCLA legend Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA to be compensated for its use of his collegiate-self image and likeness in video games; more recently, the Northwestern University football program attempted to unionize as employees in order to negotiate compensation for playing football at NU. O’Bannon represents a move towards retroactive compensation, while Northwestern pushed the action for compensation while still in school. Neither won outright, but you have to start somewhere!

The hate is strong with the opposition, although we can all agree it is not completely unjustified. College students, in general, are not the most mature demographic and so it is not far-fetched that lacing a student who has an inflated ego, living in a bubbled-up college environment, with cash as reward for their superior athletic talents could yield some unfavorable results. Yet O’Bannon touches on something that is not quite so abrasive.

Currently, the NCAA prohibits its athletes from using their own name, affiliation with the school, or reputation as an athlete in order to be compensated. In essence, there is a ban against NCAA athletes using their good will or reputation to be compensated. But why? A music student at a top music school can take what they have learned from the professor, post a song on YouTube, and solicit him or herself in any manner they choose to make a profit. 

So why not let NCAA players reap the same benefit? The result in letting the young buggers earn some dough off of their good names is unknown. What we do know is that there are very few businesses that profit from their reputation that didn’t bust some tail in order to earn it. We also know that the NCAA is extremely sensitive to opening these floodgates to players, as evidenced when, after his YouTube page generated a following of more than half a million views, University of Central Florida football player Donald De La Haye was forced to shut down his thriving YouTube page or lose his eligibility.

Perhaps paying players presents a potential moral hazard, and the Trojan defense that the NCAA will continue to put up against the movement might point smart money on conceding that there is an easier path. Besides, one must decide whether or not we want to get rid of the problem or to correct the behavior, because legalizing the otherwise “reprehensible” behavior merely creates an arms race. Throwing money at the problem would only patch up a wound, or stop the coughing, but it will not provide a cure. 

So where does this leave us? There is a system in college athletics where every single person in the system can be compensated except for the player -the entertainer-, the main event! History has shown us that the establishment won’t change unless the change is necessary. As it stands, the amateur basketball industry produces $11 billion a year, and the player’s piece of the pie is a shot at pursuing a degree that is losing value year over year, really cool gear, and the opportunity to be the big dog on campus for a few years. The legal term for this sort of quid pro quo might be called“inadequate consideration”, or an unfair trade.

The cure must come from within. College basketball needs some ‘Tussin! Back to the basics! The basic tenants of competing for the NCAA are that you must be a student, and you must be an athlete. So why isn’t there any focus on teaching the student-athlete what their value is to this ecosystem? Bill Russell once said so prophetically to Uncle Drew, “This game has always been, and will always be about one thing… buckets!” What if players were taught the type of web that begins to be spun once they score a bucket or dish an assist at a nationally-acclaimed AAU tournament? What if they were equipped with a sound understanding of the wheels that are set in motion once they are identified as a prospect of interest? What if they understood why they were a prospect of interest? For the pariahs, it’s about money, but for the players, it’s about productivity- getting it done. This creates the economy of macro and micro basketball economics.  In order for players to steer clear from the inappropriate influences, they should understand both.

I am a firm believer that a rising high school star can learn cost-benefit analysis. Let’s say a teenager known as a scorer on the top AAU circuit, who averages 20 ppg, is being recruited by several schools from several different conferences.  Between AAU, YouTube, and social media, it is very likely that our scorer knows of similar players who are going, or who have gone, through the recruiting process. In deciding which conference to focus on, the scorer should know that, based on draft results from the last decade, if he can rank amongst the top 3 scorers in the Big 10 conference, and he finishes his season with a winning record -both in and out of conference-, and he averages at least 17.5 ppg, then he has a 100% chance of being drafted. In addition, he should know that the average points scored by the top 3 scorers during the past decade is approximately 18.3 ppg.

Likewise, in order to be drafted from the Big 12 as a scorer, he should know that the average production from the top 3 scorers in that conference over the same period of time is 19.4 ppg. Drafters are more forgiving in the Big 12, with the 4th or 5th highest scorer regularly being selected, but there is much more redundancy in the Big 12 with respect to the stat leaders being ahead in multiple statistical categories- more versatility. It is not all about scoring, but scoring is the easiest example to use to illustrate the point.

Our scorer should look at how older players with similar stats have fared in the recruiting process, and how the players performed at their respective schools. Our scorer can compare his peers’ productivity in AAU and high school to how they perform in college and decide whether or not it is feasible to hit those magic numbers.

The above example considers the productivity required as a scorer to be drafted to the NBA. We have not discussed that, despite a scorer needing to score and win games in order to be drafted by the best league in the world, 100% of the top scorers that were on losing teams in the Big 10 were able to land top-paying international jobs. It’s not seven figures, but six figures ain’t bad!

Youth players should be able to weigh their probabilities based on production against the threat of being the target of an FBI or NCAA investigation, and make a good decision. Likewise, a player should be able to do the numbers on the value of their production as an amateur, and decide whether they would be able to let their profitability sit for 3-4 years as a college player.  If they decide they cannot park their stock, then there are plenty of international leagues that presumably would be chomping at the bit to pay up ASAP.

This is a great deal of data to digest, so it is beyond unrealistic to expect millennials to put forth this sort of due diligence, but there are resources out there as accessible as Twitter and Snapchat to help. One start-up company, Global Sports Analytics, LLC., is a sports management company that is predicated upon assessing a player’s value based on market demand for their skill set and advanced data-metrics.

Exploring GSA’s platform and process illustrates that a radical value reform in youth players is much more attainable than it now seems. The GSA platform weighs the player strengths and weaknesses in an algorithm, taking into account the differences in pace of play and style of play from one league to another, to generate a player rating called the “M-Score”. Essentially, the M-Score is a player rating system similar to the one that kids are familiar with from NBA 2K or NBA Live, but for real life.

Let’s leave off with LBJ.  As a teenager, LeBron realized his value as a basketball player at 18 years of age was worth more than a college degree would have been worth 4 years down the line. LeBron James is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but it’s worth noting that Brandon Jennings similarly realized that his value as an international player after high school was worth more than his degree would be worth after collegiate athletics. No scandals, no handlers, just pure basketball. Instead of scaring players into submission from taking a leap of faith on their talents with stories of players who left the NCAA behind too quickly, such as Lenny Cooke and Sebastian Telfair, let’s arm them with the information needed to defend themselves against the talons of the NCAA, and all other predators of the game.