Photo by Getty Images

Feinstein: Want To Fix One-And-Done? End It – And Pay Players

February 28, 2018 - 10:39 am

Let the hand-wringing begin.

In the wake of last weekend’s FBI revelations involving college basketball players and their families receiving cash, loans, and meals from agents – not to mention the explosive story alleging that Arizona Coach Sean Miller was caught on a phone wire-tap talking about a $100,000 payoff to current freshman Deandre Ayton – it feels as if the entire world is coming forward with answers.

Let schools pay the players. Let corporate America and agents pay the players. Fix the one-and-done rule. Abandon all pretense and just declare college players pros-in-training. Wait for the so-called Condoleezza Rice commission to report back to NCAA President Mark Emmert with its recommendations.

All these ideas have some merit. But let’s simplify the argument because it really isn’t as complicated as people want to make it sound.

There’s no way to “fix” college sports — not in the sense that it will again become the pure experience that college presidents would have you believe it is, especially when they drone on about “student-athletes,” even though the term is redundant. By rule, you have to be a student to be a college athlete.

Beyond that, it’s a myth, created by men and women who can’t be trusted to tell you what day of the week it is. Do you think for a second any of those freshmen at Duke and Kentucky are students? They’re just biding their time, being treated like heroes by fans and boosters who care only about racking up wins, until they can become multi-millionaires.

THEY are not at fault. They’re doing what the rules say they have to do. The fact that Adam Silver stands up at the NBA All-Star game and goes on (and on) about how complicated the one-and-done rule is and how tough it will be to fix it, is a disgrace. You know how you fix it? You get rid of it. You allow any high school senior to declare for the NBA draft and if he decides he doesn’t like his draft position or the money he’s offered, he can go to college.

And then stay three years before he can go into the draft again. The precedent is there: that’s the baseball rule. If the player thinks he wants to try the draft again in a year, he can enroll in junior college and live a much less glamorous and privileged life for a season, but have the chance to turn pro again the next year.

Is that complicated? No. But the NBA would have to give something to the players in return for approving this rule and it’s just not important enough to the league to do that. THAT’S where it gets complicated.

Here’s what else isn’t complicated: what the NCAA needs to do next. Let’s cut through all the hand-wringing for a moment and everyone claiming to be Inspector Renault because they’re SHOCKED there’s cheating going on.

No one’s shocked.

Years ago, I was assigned by Sports Illustrated to do a story on the growing power of Nike and Sonny Vaccaro, who was basically delivering players to schools and coaches that Nike had invested in. I went to Las Vegas for an AAU tournament, knowing every coach in America would be there.

I heard plenty of stories. Vaccaro had made sure Alonzo Mourning went to Georgetown when it looked like he might go to Maryland or Georgia Tech. Then he’d delivered Brian Williams (later Bison Dele) to Maryland as a consolation prize for not getting Mourning.

There was more. Vaccaro was above the rules. He could talk to players whenever he wanted to and lavish them with gear and tickets to events and fly them to his big-time camp, then held in New Jersey.

There was just one problem. None of the coaches would go on the record. You couldn’t write all the stories I was being told based on “anonymous sources.”

Bobby Cremins, who was at Georgia Tech, had been convinced Mourning wanted to come and play for him until Vaccaro intervened. But he wouldn’t say it for the record.

Four days in, I had coffee one morning with Joey Meyer, then the coach at DePaul and one of the sport’s most honorable people. When I asked him why I couldn’t get ANYONE on the record, he smiled.

“John, there are two kinds of coaches in the world right now,” he said. “Coaches who have Nike deals and coaches who WISH they had Nike deals. You’re out of luck.”

He was, of course, right. Now, the influence of the shoe companies is even greater. There are more of them in the business and they pay schools and coaches millions. Even if they don’t make direct payoffs like the one Adidas was accused of in the Louisville case, they build strong relationships with high school and (more important) AAU coaches. They fund high school and AAU programs and coaches and that gives them a direct link to players and their families — plus their entourages.

Why do high school players transfer so frequently nowadays? Often it is because a shoe company “suggests” they go play for a coach they control.

There is no underestimating the role the shoe companies have played in all of this. The notion that they have somehow been good for basketball is sort of like saying that John Dillinger was good for banks. Their influence on players and coaches has been destructive at best, ruinous at worst.

If you listen to the powerbrokers in the sport, everyone is innocent: the coaches know nothing; the shoe companies are all good guys; the “student-athletes” are the most wonderful young men in the world and there might be a rogue agent or two doing bad things. But most are given access to games and, sometimes, locker rooms because in many cases they represent the coaches.

And yet, even though everyone’s a good guy, all these bad things keep happening. It isn’t just that rules are getting broken, LAWS are being broken.

So, is there an answer? There are two. You have to pick one or the other.

Answer one is to just come out of the closet of fake amateurism and create a new “pro” division of college basketball. Each school is allowed to pay players $1 million a year — that’s a made-up number for the sake of argument. The school can give 90 percent of it to one player and the rest to his teammates or it can divide it equally. Or something in between. Their choice. Will that create a highest bidder scenario for star players? Sure, just like there is today. But if there’s a ceiling — in effect a salary cap — then Kentucky and Duke aren’t going to be able to sign the top five players each year. You don’t pay as much as the NBA, and players are free to turn pro after high school and play in the NBA, the G-League or overseas.

There will be two tournaments: one for the “pro” division and one for everyone else. Will much of the romance of the NCAA Tournament go away? Absolutely. No more George Mason, Butler or VCU in the Final Four unless they decide to pony up and play in the “pro” division. No more Lehigh over Duke; Harvard over New Mexico; Bucknell over Kansas.

C’est la vie.

Or, you can go the other way: keep the rules in place but allow star players to be paid in three ways: 1. Through a trust fund established by their school WHEN THEY GRADUATE. The future NBA players won’t need that money, but everyone else will be incentivized to graduate. 2. Let corporate America pay star players over-the-table. 3. Give players a percentage of sales of their uniforms. If a school sells one million uniforms for a player or 10, the player gets 25 percent.

And then you invoke the death penalty if a school is found guilty of major violations. No appeals. No second chances. If you’re guilty of a major violation, your program is shut down for a year. The coach — even if he tries to blame Andre McGee, who is apparently guilty of every crime ever committed in college basketball — gets a five-year show cause. Eligible players transfer and it will probably take five years to get the program back on its feet.

Will any or all of this STOP cheating? No. But it will make coaches and schools and players think twice before they cheat. Right now, cheating pays. You win games, you make lots of money and then someone — gasp! — takes down your banner. You parade around saying, “Yeah, but we still won and we’re really innocent. It’s Andre McGee’s fault.”

Do I expect any of this to happen? No, because the TV networks would go nuts if big-time programs got shut down. Even Penn State, in the wake of the Sandusky tragedy, didn’t get taken off of TV.

The apocalypse may or may not be upon us in college athletics. Truth is, it can’t come soon enough.

John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—has been a New York Times bestseller for four months. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,”—was chosen as one of the best books of 2016 by the Junior Library Guild.