SAN ANTONIO – The latest commission created with the intention to fix the ills of college basketball met in a clandestine hotel here on Thursday and Friday. Their meeting generated little interest or publicity amid the bustle of the Final Four, other than wide-spread skepticism that it can achieve its initial goals.
On Sept. 26, 2017, the FBI arrested 10 men tied to basketball after a sweeping federal probe into the sport’s underbelly. In the wake of the arrests, the NCAA cast a compelling character – former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – with the task of fixing the sport’s age-old problems with recruiting, the role of sneaker companies and agents, potential methods to further compensate players and finding ways to work with entities like USA Basketball and the NBA to improve the sport.
A distinct cycle of administrative inertia has defined the NCAA for the past generation – scandal, tough talk and some formal or informal group dedicated to fixing it. Call it a commission, committee or working group, but the result has been largely the same – ineffective rules, impotent punishments and more business as usual. One member of the Rice Commission, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, summed up the state of the sport this way to Yahoo Sports: “Something drastic needs to happen.”
With the findings due on April 25, daunting questions loom: Why will this commission rise above all the others? What will the sport look like in the near future? And, most importantly: Can Condoleezza Rice save college basketball? “I think the expectation has been set that this will be different,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Yahoo Sports. “Now the question is what the output is going to be.”
Yahoo Sports spoke with a dozen people affiliated with the committee – including members and officials who’ve spoken in front of the committee and people who’ve been briefed on the deliberations. The opinions, tone and expectations vary wildly, from coaches chuckling at the group’s lack of on-the-ground credentials to faith in Rice based on her distinguished career. (If she can run a group tasked with Iraq stabilization, shouldn’t she be able to handle college basketball?)
No one has disputed the group’s thoroughness, as they’ve brought in speakers from every avenue – NBA agents, college commissioners, high school coaches and representatives from the NBA and USA Basketball.
The final briefings and deliberations this weekend will determine where the Rice Commission will land on the key and contentious issues – ability to engage with agents, potential methods of compensating players, overhauling the recruiting scene, changing the NCAA enforcement model and the future of the so-called one-and-done model. These are potentially seismic changes if, of course, they can be agreed upon, implemented and enforced. Identifying the issues has never been a problem. Fixing them has proven much more vexing.
People familiar with Rice’s role in the committee said she only took the job after being given private assurances that the committee’s recommendations will be acted upon. NCAA president Mark Emmert supported this notion, flashing the type of tough talk that has historically preceded NCAA inaction: “Just to be blunt about it, you don’t waste Condoleezza Rice’s time if you’re not serious about it…” Emmert said. “Everybody that’s involved in college basketball right now recognizes this can’t continue the way it’s continuing.”
To veteran coaches who’ve become jaded by decades of the NCAA’s failure to police and administer the sport, Emmert’s words are as empty as they are familiar. “Most of the people on the Rice Commission don’t know anything about college basketball,” said former USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who works as analyst for the Pac-12 Network. “You need people who’ve been in the streets, dealing with that year-in and year-out. I’m not sure any of the people, with a few exceptions, really know what the culture of basketball recruiting is.”
While there’s an undertow of cynicism in the industry about changes, it’s clear the game is going to look different. That starts with the so-called one-and-done model, the issue that’s received the most publicity. It’s also one the NCAA has no control over, as it’s up to the NBA Players Association and has been collectively bargained on. The Rice Commission has met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, NBA Players Association executive director Michele Roberts and other officials. The overwhelming feeling from all sides, at least publicly, is that the one-and-done rule will be lifted in the next few years. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has stated this, and there’s a strong belief in the industry – including strong comments from LeBron James – that the Players Association will play along. The earliest this could realistically change is 2020, as NBA teams would need time to adjust how they scout.
Rice had initially been intrigued by a model similar to the one in baseball, which allows players to go directly from high school to the pros or requires a three-year minimum stay in college. The Pac-12 had forwarded this notion in its recommendations from its own task force.
But this notion died quickly, as the NBA and NBA Players Association had little interest in it, and those rules in other sports are set by the professional entities, not the NCAA.
Also important for the Rice Commission is fostering a sense of collaboration for the NCAA with the NBA and the Players Association. The NBA Players Association is tasked with policing agents, something that it has had little incentive to do aggressively over the decades. The possibility looms for the NBA to be more entrenched in grassroots basketball, which it appears open to.
“Given her many accomplishments, Secretary Rice has not surprisingly been thorough and thoughtful in her approach to the complex issues facing college basketball and based on my discussions with her, she has deeply immersed herself in the subject,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Yahoo Sports.
While the potential preps-to-pro model will draw most of the headlines, there’s myriad other issues on the table with the potential to significantly alter the sport. Or if they’re not addressed, this commission will be recalled – and eventually forgotten – as the NCAA’s most elaborate window dressing.
Here are the cliff notes of the key issues the commission is pondering:
• Agents – The agents have long infiltrated the grassroots world, funding teams as recruiting vehicles and paying players and their families early in their high school career. (The money often comes from financial advisers.) The key issue here: Should agents be allowed to formally advise – and potentially compensate – high school athletes?
• Shoe companies – Adidas has played a large role in the federal investigation, as they allegedly arranged for a six-figure payment for top-25 recruit Brian Bowen to attend Louisville. The shoe companies, including Nike and Under Armour, control a majority of summer basketball and have a large influence on the talent. This issue has been around longer than the 3-point shot. How can their influence be managed?
• Compensation – Players aren’t going to be paid directly, as Emmert has been vocal about this topic to adjust expectations. But there’s a chance for evolution here, as the topics being explored – “image and likeness” and the “Olympic model” – would be ways to give the prominent basketball stars some cut of the billion-dollar pie. Again, not a new or simple issue. This one resonates most in public perception, as the overwhelming public view is the players – especially the stars at prominent schools – are getting a raw deal. The math, however, is much more complicated.
• NCAA enforcement – The federal investigation has exposed NCAA enforcement for exactly what everyone had assumed for decades – both ill-equipped and incapable of solving the complicated matrix of cheating in the sport. The Pac-12 in particular has been vocal about a complete overhaul, eliminating the governing body’s conflict of interest and putting teeth in punishment by outsourcing it from the NCAA. This topic elicits the most skepticism from coaches, as they’ve been inundated with decades of rhetoric and seen the same cheating, cheaters and scammers thrive.
“The bottom line is this: The rewards are so great in college basketball that winning in many situations overshadows everything.” O’Neill said.
Even the darkest cynics aren’t questioning Rice’s credentials. And those familiar with her work on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee have expressed optimism because of her mastery of group dynamics, understanding complex issues and developing a consensus.
To those who know Rice, there’s an undercurrent of quiet confidence. Rice enrolled in college at 15, earned a master’s from Notre Dame and became the first woman to serve as National Security Adviser and first African-American women to become Secretary of State. Her accomplishments are vast and her intellect is considered world class.
To say she’s never seen issues this complex would be insulting and disingenuous. But it would also be naive to underestimate the complexities of the issues.
“If anyone can cut through it, it’s her,” said Mike Tranghese, who served with Rice on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. “She’s tough, you aren’t going to bulldoze her. She’s dealt with issues that are so far over this issue she’s not going to get overwhelmed by it.”
But Tranghese grew up watching the game careen on this path, from his job as sports information director at American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, to commissioner of the Big East.
“I lived it in my life, it’s not a simple thing,” he said. “The culture is so unique, there aren’t many people out there who truly understand it in my view.”
Smith is optimistic after working with Rice, and he’s complimentary of her administrative savvy and understanding of the issues. He’s also familiar with the culture of the sport, expressing his dismay that this current hiring cycle didn’t reflect any caution among presidents and administrators in the wake of the scandal.
“I don’t think it’s just this committee,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Everyone can’t put everything on this committee, that it’s going to be the savior of a culture that’s developed for four or five decades. The reality is we’re not going to come up with the recommendations that are going to eliminate the problems. They are recommendations to mitigate the issues and help. But it’s going to take a collaborative effort, and not just within the NCAA. We’re going to need many entities to eliminate the bad actors.”
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