The Federal Bureau of Investigation made headlines in the sports world when it arrested 10 people Sept. 26 for a pay-for-play scandal, in which coaches, agents and shoe company employees sent and received bribes involving college basketball recruits.
Among the arrested were multiple college basketball assistant coaches and Adidas’ director of global sports marketing for basketball, Jim Gatto. This was undoubtedly a big story — but for college sports fans, it was completely unsurprising.
Recruiting scandals are the norm in big-time college athletics. From the hundreds of thousands of dollars given as gifts to Reggie Bush, to the close-knit relationship between Ponzi-schemer Nevin Shapiro and the Miami Hurricanes football team, to the Louisville Cardinals coaching staff providing escorts to potential recruits — it should not be shocking that this latest scandal was so unsurprising.
At the root of the scandal — like many — is money. College basketball is a multibillion-dollar industry. The NCAA tournament itself, less than a month long, generates more than a billion dollars of revenue. And the crucial driving force behind it all is unpaid student-athletes.
People will always argue over whether or not college basketball players should be paid — even if they should be, establishing a fair and legal pay-for-play system in college sports would be a nightmare. But there are easy ways to prevent future scandals that rely on already existing frameworks — open the NBA draft to high school athletes and expand the NBA developmental league to provide opportunities for young players to develop.
Opponents of pay-for-play systems are quick to bring up scholarships as justification for student-athletes’ free labor. Others point out slightly higher graduation rates of college athletes than non-athletes, and argue their academic experience is worth it.
But regardless of the cost or purported academic enrichment, the graduation rate of players on teams that qualify for the NCAA tournament — the biggest prize in college basketball — is around 50 percent, compared to more than 70 percent for all Division I basketball players.
This means the more successful players are at basketball, the more revenue they generate for their school — and the less of a chance they have at graduating. At the University of North Carolina, more than 3,000 student-athletes took “paper classes,” which, according to the Washington Post, “had minimal or no teaching and extremely generous grading for assignments that took little effort.”
Many of my fellow college students, myself included, struggle to balance the workload of college, keeping an active social life and maintaining good health. Can anyone blame these athletes for taking “paper classes?” Many young athletes attend elite basketball schools simply to prepare themselves for the NBA.
Admittedly, these athletes choose to accept their scholarships and attend these universities. No one is forcing these athletes’ hands — their decisions seem entirely voluntary. Unfortunately, this is not the reality of the situation.
The NBA collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2005, changed the NBA’s eligibility requirements so that players must be at least 19 years old and spend a year out of high school before they can enter the NBA draft. Amateur players must find a way to continue playing basketball in this year — which comes at a crucial time in their athletic development.
The NCAA has a monopoly on amateur college basketball. Players who want to play in the NBA have little choice but to attend a Division I school. Some players have opted to play in international leagues for the year after high school, where they’re compensated for their labor.
But this isn’t a fair solution. If we want to support student-athletes on both fronts — student and athlete — then we shouldn’t be forcing them to move to a foreign country to be able to make a living. Many students aren’t able to afford the rising cost of college, and if they aren’t getting their money’s worth for their degrees, then we’re failing them.
True, some 18-year-olds simply aren’t ready for the NBA. The high level of competition against more physically developed athletes could have a detrimental effect on young players. To address this issue, the NBA has a developmental league — which should be expanded to ensure available opportunities for all basketball players.
The developmental league could follow Minor League Baseball’s model, where players rise through multiple minor leagues before earning a promotion to the majors. Baseball players drafted out of high school can decide whether to sign a minor league contract or play at a college. It’s no surprise there aren’t stories of recruiting scandals in college baseball — players have no incentive to accept illegal bribes when they can be legally paid for their labor.
This model would offer legitimacy to the notion of the student-athlete and ensure college basketball players who opted to attend universities did so with a choice. It would open up better opportunities for those who actually want to gain an education, as well as those who simply wish to be professional athletes.
And even if the student-athletes aren’t considered, changing the system would at the very least prevent coaches and corporate executives from profiting off of young talented stars — putting their careers back in their own hands.