Slow clap to the NCAA for inching some rules toward the realities of college basketball.
What the NCAA announced Wednesday, such as allowing the very top high school players to have agents and letting some players who go undrafted return to college ball, is progress. But what I read didn’t go nearly far enough in protecting the interests of the “student-athlete.” (A term the NCAA drops into every possible public discussion, whether spoken or in writing).
Kids talented enough to play for the top programs — the Power 5 schools, plus the Villanovas, Gonzagas, etc. — are there to audition for the NBA. I’m not saying they don’t care about the school or their coaches or their teammates, but positioning themselves for a career in professional basketball is the objective, and anything else is a distant second. There are a lot of kids at lesser programs with the same priority, whether that is realistic or not.
You could argue it’s not the NCAA’s function to promote the career prospects of a 6-foot-9 power forward. However, it’s also not appropriate for the NCAA to impede that pursuit, and some of these rules have previously been so outdated that they interfered with making the best decisions.
Some specifics of what the NCAA announced:
▪ “Elite” high school recruits and college players (and all the particulars of who is defined as “elite” appears to be determined) will now have the option to be represented by agents who have been certified under an NCAA vetting process.
▪ Players with remaining college eligibility, who remain in an NBA draft but go unselected, will under certain criteria be allowed to play college basketball again. One of those reported criteria is that the player was invited to and participated in the NBA Combine.
▪ Division I schools will be required to pay tuition, fees and books for men’s and women’s basketball players who left school and later returned to that same school to complete their degrees. The NCAA will establish a fund to assist schools otherwise unable to provide this aid.
These are all good steps toward serving the athletes who make the NCAA tournament great each year. Since the NCAA tournament generates most of the revenue that funds the NCAA, that’s the least the organization can do.
Drilling into each of these provisions:
▪ Making agents’ interaction with high school and college players above-the-table is a no-brainer. As best I can tell from afar, the advice and sometimes representation high school baseball prospects get from agents is a plus. If it’s inevitable (NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said as much) that the draft will again be open to players straight out of high school, then those players and their parents need as much guidance as possible to make informed decisions. Agents often get a bad rap as pragmatists and manipulators; they serve a necessary and appropriate role in this process.
I’m uneasy the NCAA wants to limit access to agents to those they define as “elite.” What’s the harm in letting any player seek the advice of an agent, and letting the marketplace decide who agents think is talented enough to justify their time?
▪ Any player with remaining eligibility, who goes unselected in the draft, should have the same option to return to college basketball.
I get why the NCAA might want to limit that option to players who participated in the combine, so as not to unintentionally encourage foolish choices about staying in the draft. I find it ridiculous every spring when 100 or more underclassmen make themselves available for a draft that goes 60 deep.
But I’d rather live with some sophomore deluding himself about his draft status than end that kid’s ability to return to his mid-major program. To me, maximizing a kid’s opportunity to better himself should be more important than protecting college coaches’ keeping their rosters tidy in June.
▪ Obliging schools to be more financially vested in players completing their degrees, even years after those players’ eligibility is exhausted, is a great idea. It’s even better that the NCAA will draw resources from the cash cow that is the NCAA tournament to make sure the funding is there to make this happen.
Completing a degree might not be a priority to a kid at 18, but that education often grows in value as one ages. The recruiting pitch coaches make to parents, promising an education, shouldn’t come with an implicit expiration date.