CHARLOTTE, N.C. (USA TODAY) — Georgia Tech Josh Pastner has a neighbor in Atlanta who doesn’t really follow college basketball, but last month found a sudden interest in the sport. News of the most widespread scandal in NCAA history had penetrated so deep, even someone who couldn’t name a player on Pastner’s roster was asking questions about what those federal indictments meant and how far the dirt might spread.
At Mike Brey’s breakfast spot in South Bend, Ind., people have been approaching him with questions like, “Everything good with us? You OK?” which have been vague in substance but unmistakable in their implication.
“We’re all in it, man,” Brey said. “We know it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
In the post-FBI investigation world, merely being involved in college basketball carries with it the scarlet letter of corruption, which should give those who chose it as their profession plenty of incentive to clean it up.
That was the topic here at the ACC’s annual preseason media event Wednesday, and for good reason. Now the nation’s pre-eminent and unrivaled conference in college basketball strength, the ACC has suffered the biggest fallout of the scandal with Rick Pitino being fired at Louisville and allegations that Adidas executives were planning to funnel money to a recruit to attend Miami.
At the same time, with Hall of Fame coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim, no league potentially has greater influence on how to fix it.
“I think it’s an opportunity,” Krzyzewski said. “In some respects, it can be one of the most productive times in the history of our game.”
Krzyzewki is right that this scandal is so big, so embarrassing that perhaps it will shock some people into thinking differently about everything from the grassroots system to agent involvement and working toward real solutions.
But when all the committee meetings are finished and task force reports written, there’s still reason to doubt that the stakeholders in college sports be self-aware enough to understand that the problem isn’t the agents, the NBA, the AAU coaches or the shoe companies — it’s them.
“I don’t know where it will end up,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “I don’t know how much can be changed. I’m an optimist by nature, but the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think we have a chance to improve this without some connectedness between these groups and quite frankly just about any degree of connectedness among these groups would be better than where we are right now.”
Swofford is right that the only fix for systemic issues is a holistic approach that involves every aspect of the basketball business from grassroots all the way to the NBA.
The problem is, whether you’re talking about a shoe company, an agent or a pro league, none of them except the NCAA participate in a market where a player's value is capped at a scholarship and a full cost of attendance stipend.
In other words, it’s not the job of the NBA or Nike to bend to the value system of college sports; it’s the NCAA’s job to acknowledge that there’s a market for talent and to adjust its rules accordingly.
“We’ve got to modernize some things,” Swofford said. “I’m not for throwing out the collegiate model, but I am for modernizing it to live in today’s world in a way that makes sense.”
How far will that go?
Given the equity built into his brand as arguably the greatest college basketball coach of all time and a three-time Olympic gold medal winner, Krzyzewski has a chance to be the voice of reason for the next iteration of the NCAA.
Though vague on specific solutions, Krzyzewski clearly sees the folly in trying to make the multibillion-dollar business of college basketball fit into the same paradigm as women’s volleyball or men’s soccer. He isn’t afraid to say that many of the rules governing college sports on issues such as agents, for example, are antiquated and irrelevant and should be updated to align with the world in which we live now, not the one that existed 30 years ago.
“One of the strengths of any organization is adaptability,” he said.
Krzyzewski, however, seems to think evolution will be relatively easy for the NCAA. I’m not so sure.
“Do you still drive an Edsel?” he asked when I pointed out that 70 years of NCAA history would suggest that big changes often are met with even bigger pushback. “Do you still listen to an 8-track? Come on. Change isn’t hard, but change requires some footwork and you have to do it. The thing is, the game cries out for structural change.”
That might sound good, but where do you start and where do you end? It’s going to be complicated.
Though everyone agrees the NBA’s so-called “one-and-done” rule isn’t going to be in place much longer, those who point to that as a real solution to the underground economy of college basketball are doing so only as a crutch.
Whenever an entity believes a basketball player at any level has a monetary value to them, it’s more likely than not that the money eventually will flow to either the player or someone attached to him. At the end of the day, the only way to reduce corruption is make things legal that were once illegal.
The agent issue, for instance, has an easy fix. If you let college athletes sign with agents — all legal, all above board, all out in the open — you eliminate the need for players to take under-the-table money from them in exchange for promises that may or may not get kept.
“But when you go down that road, you have one guy on your team that’s getting paid from an agent and some guys that aren’t getting anything,” Boeheim said.
When I argued that’s pretty much the case in any environment, in any walk of life, Boeheim shot back, “You’re talking about 18-year-old kids. To me, that’s difficult for 18-year-olds to process. Maybe they could. You’ve got to change the whole amateur way of doing things.”
Given how his sport has been exposed over the past month, why would that be so bad?