Don't be fooled by NCAA's smoke-and-mirrors rule changes ... this was a power grab

The NCAA on Wednesday increased its investigation power by providing itself de facto subpoena power over nearly anyone involved in college athletics. Likewise, it gave itself the ability to accept outside investigations as fact without confirming the findings itself. Meanwhile, it announced it is establishing more forceful penalties for rule violators.

This here is a doubling down on the NCAA rule book that holds the concept of amateurism sacred … at least to college athletics’ bottom line.

Mostly, it was a power grab disguised as “reform.”

The NCAA claims it “delivered on a promise” and made “profound and meaningful changes” to college basketball in response to last year’s federal indictments within the sport.

Except there were neither profound changes nor meaningful changes, let alone both. There were hardly any changes at all, actually. There may have been a promise that was delivered on, but to whom that promise mattered, other than the NCAA itself, remains a question.

Don’t buy the hype, the spin or the few common-sense concessions that were long overdue.

College basketball players who go undrafted by the NBA will be allowed to return to school and play as part of sweeping NCAA reforms in the wake of a corruption scandal, the NCAA announced Wednesday. (AP)
College basketball players who go undrafted by the NBA will be allowed to return to school and play as part of sweeping NCAA reforms in the wake of a corruption scandal, the NCAA announced Wednesday. (AP)

For example, the NCAA patted itself on the back for now allowing the occasional player who enters the NBA draft, but is not selected, to return to college basketball as long as he is in good academic standing.

How this was not allowed is the real question. Why would you ever kick out quality student-athletes who want to play for you? In hockey, baseball and other sports, you can be drafted and still maintain all your college eligibility. Why not basketball? The answer: Coaches wanted to use fear of lost eligibility to prevent players from exploring professional options while also assuring their rosters were set by early spring.

It’s good this is gone, but it’ll likely effect just a handful of kids a year and it’s still equal to what hockey and baseball players enjoy.

Meaningful and purposeful? Not quite.

This was all about enforcement, which is to say this was about protecting the money. It’s about not even bothering to address the free-market value of players, making a move toward the Olympic model that allows for sponsorship or endorsement opportunities or even truly protecting student-athletes.

Consider that the NCAA could have addressed academic fraud, most famously revealed in the scandal over no-work classes at the University of North Carolina. The NCAA said it lacked the authority to penalize UNC. Tuition, room and board is the compensation players receive and it isn’t insignificant, at least unless the school is steering you to courses where nothing is taught.

It strikes to the heart of college athletics. Or should. The NCAA’s own commission, headed by Condoleezza Rice, deemed that a “must.”

The NCAA deemed it unworthy of comment. It was not addressed. It was a profound and meaningful failure.

This was all about protecting the status quo by clearing investigative barriers and then promising to drop the hammer on whomever they catch.

Here’s the big one: “as a term of employment, school presidents and athletics staff must commit contractually to full cooperation in the investigations and infractions process.”

This can essentially compel testimony, not to mention evidence forfeiture, as a prerequisite to employment. It’s either full cooperation or go work elsewhere. It’s a significant, and coveted, step up in power for the investigative staff.

Then there is the NCAA allowing itself to accept investigations from outside parties and thus no longer needing to discover something twice. If the FBI or someone else says something happened, then it happened. Case closed.

The NCAA is stronger than ever now. And it knows it. It’s even vowing that “those who break rules face stronger penalties, including longer postseason bans, longer head coach suspensions, increased recruiting restrictions and additional fines.”

There is some merit to that. Coaches have, for too long, known that being caught cheating would not hurt a career nearly as much as losing. It’s always been the hypocrisy of college sports. Of course, it’s colleges (member NCAA institutions) who keep hiring those coaches.

If you want the NCAA rules enforced, then this was a big day. That’s all it was though.

To many, the federal indictments that saw assistant basketball coaches, sneaker executives and various middlemen get indicted was a clear sign that the NCAA’s biggest problem was its own rules. Trying to stop the wheels of capitalism has been a failed exercise for well over half a century, long before the FBI was running a sting operation into the sport.

Rather than drill down on how its rule book got so crossways that it became a literal federal case (multiple ones, really), the NCAA just wished it was the FBI and then made it as much a reality as possible.

New powers! Tougher rules! More enforcement! Stricter penalties!

In exchange, some “elite” players will get to have agents, although determining who is and isn’t elite is just another layer of bureaucracy. Recruits will get more paid campus visits. There will be stiffer certification for basketball events, even though that isn’t a problem. And the NCAA is “pursuing an agreement with apparel companies on expectations for accountability and transparency regarding their involvement in youth basketball.”

That’s nice. And pointless. Until athletic departments stop taking huge sums of money from Nike and Adidas, “expectations of accountability” are comical. The schools work for the shoe companies, not vice versa. Give back the money and then let’s talk.

They aren’t giving back the money though. They aren’t giving up anything at all.

This was about seizing the ability to investigate, punish and prop up that rule book more than ever. It’s about the increased weaponization of amateurism – after all, those big salaries, bloated athletic department staffs, comp cars, country club memberships and gold-plated facilities don’t pay for themselves.

The rules protect the cash flow, even as they create the underground economy that will never, ever go away until there is real reform.

By trying to protect the rules, rather than trying to solve the problem, the NCAA showed it is profoundly cool with nothing meaningful changing at all.

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