There’s always been a fundamental disconnect between the National Football League, National Basketball Association and the NCAA. The primary problem has been and remains that while the so-called power conferences function as de facto minor leagues for the NFL and NBA, that has never really been what they were designed to do.
Ideally, college sports were created to provide extra-curricular activities for students. For the vast majority of its participants that remains the reality. But for the one percent gifted enough to make it to the pros, things are quite different. This select group is being groomed to ultimately be the best in their profession. But that goal may or may not coincide with the objectives of a college football or basketball coach, and it is definitely not part of the overall mission of an educational institution except in the broadest sense of defining the college experience.
Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have their own farm systems that exist solely to develop talent. But NCAA athletes are supposed to be students, and their education is deemed their primary goal. Framed against that is the fact college coaches are judged on wins and losses, and the top schools earn millions of dollars based on how well they perform in various conferences, and ultimately the college football playoffs and NCAA basketball tournament.
This is a situation with no easy answer. While there have been and continue to be cases of schools exploiting its athletes (see the recent academic scandal at North Carolina for one prime example) the vast majority of schools take both their academic and athletic missions seriously. There’s a long list of players who’ve gone on to great careers in many fields who were never pro caliber athletes, and it would be just as wrong to totally categorize all college sport as exploitative as it would be to ignore the ugly cases that fit those parameters.
Fortunately, many at the NCAA have begun recognizing evolution is necessary, and the past two years have seen some welcome changes in procedure involving everything from scholarships to draft eligibility. Last week a very positive development occurred when an agreement was reached between the NCAA, NBA and National Association of college basketball coaches.
Under these new rules, college basketball underclassmen can work out with one NBA team per year and still return to college without jeopardizing their eligibility. Players will be allowed to enter the draft multiple times and participate in the combine and one NBA team tryout per year. They also will be allowed up to 10 days to withdraw from the draft after the combine.
These changes took place immediately upon enactment Jan. 13. Their primary purpose was to help aspiring pros get legitimate information regarding their pro potential, and also to prevent bogus agents and greedy hangers-on from enticing athletes to depart college before they should to grab a quick payday.
Charlotte Hornets’ head coach Steve Clifford told the Associated Press he felt these changes would truly help college athletes get accurate career assessments. ”It’s really significant for guys who are going to get a better idea on where they stand,” Clifford said. ”(Some) come out early and it doesn’t work out for them. All of a sudden, they’re 25 or 26 years old with no career.” While it does put some strain on college coaches, who now must until late May in pondering possible rosters, that’s a minor inconvenience in contrast to the overall improvement it will make.
Kansas coach Bill Self was another who spoke highly in favor of these changes. ”This legislation, with help from the NBA, will allow student-athletes the opportunity to make informed decisions on their true status as a draft prospect” before forfeiting their collegiate eligibility,” Self said in a statement released by the NCAA.
These changes follow many enacted governing football that were passed in 2014 during an NCAA Division 1 meeting in Indianapolis. There the board of directors essentially allowed all schools in the Power 5 conferences to write their own rules.
They decided on a variety of things from cost-of-attendance stipends and insurance benefits for players, staff sizes, and recruiting rules to mandatory hours spent on individual sports. “This keeps Division I together,” board chairman and Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch said at the time. “I’m thrilled that Division I and all its virtues can be maintained.”
The top 64 schools in the richest five leagues (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) plus Notre Dame later submitted legislation and it took effect at the January 2015 NCAA convention in Washington, D.C. Full cost-of-attendance stipends, which could be worth between $2,000 and $5,000 per plan, and four-year scholarship guarantees were among the items now in place at most of these schools.
A new 80-member voting panel, which includes 15 current players, now determines autonomous policies for the five leagues. The power conferences also carry more voting power on general NCAA matters. Athletic directors have a much larger representation than before, when presidents mostly controlled the system.
All these changes represent major concessions being granted in terms of the governance and structure of college athletics. They still don’t (and probably can’t) address such lingering questions as what should be the purpose of sports in a college environment, and do the concessions necessary for being competitive in bigtime athletics by definition compromise educational integrity.
There will always be those on the academic side suspicious of athletics, and likewise those on the playing fields and arenas equally contemptuous of people they feel look down their noses at anyone not attending college strictly to engage in the pursuit of knowledge. The best that can be attained is reasonable compromise by everyone who sees athletics as something that can enhance, rather than distort or subvert, the college experience.
By Ron Wynn
Ron Wynn is the cousin of Robert Wynn, founder of ProSquared LLC