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Commission’s emphasis on accountability welcomed; ball now in college sports leaders’ court

May 9, 2018 Columns No Comments

When the Rice Commission on College Basketball released its report recently, a version of the word ‘accountable’ appeared 24 times throughout the report.

That was not a mistake or a fluke. When Dr. Condoleezza Rice released her prepared remarks about the report from the commission she led, they were led with her noting college basketball’s ills are “first and foremost a problem of failed accountability and lax responsibility.”

Rice’s remarks were maybe as revealing as the 52-page report itself was. Going further, Rice said: “The Commission found that talking to the stakeholders was, at times, like watching a circular firing squad-the problem, the issue, and ultimately the fault was always that of someone else.”

If one is really, truly interested in student-athlete well-being for ALL-and not just trying to push college athletics in a direction that benefits the top 1% the most, as we would argue many of the loudest critics of them are-then those words should have been chilling.

For one thing, leadership is leadership, and bad leadership in any form should bother everyone. More pertinent to the topic at hand, though: it doesn’t matter how much money is involved in college athletics; at their core, they still are about education.

Education is the reason they get a tax exemption. In fact, if people truly have issues with the model or don’t believe that the education matters, their absolute first complaint should be that major college sports programs are stealing tax exemptions. Of course, demanding taxes paid isn’t going to get one as many Twitter followers, and it doesn’t enter an iota into the self-interests that form most people’s thoughts on this issue.

As long as college sports are college sports, though, sponsored by institutions of education and higher learning, then colleges have an obligation to educate. Thus, accountability should be a simple bedrock concept of college athletics that we demand of all taking part in it.

Yet if many involved in the system-from presidents, coaches and administrators, to agents and apparel companies, all the way to parents and athletes-think everyone else is at fault but them…what the heck kind of education are we modeling in this country?

Perhaps amateurism and the structure of college sports are the least of our problems, when compared to the people involved in them.

Contrary to the media whining and always tiring-as-it-is-predictable social media anger after it was released, the Commission on College Basketball did generally good, useful work. Not perfect, but far better than most of the media outcry after it.

Some of the proposals are outstanding. Pressuring the NBA to end its one-and-done rule was a no-brainer. No, it won’t cure everything (and we have no idea why some spend so much energy condemning or defending either side of the issue). But when more and more 1.5 semesters-and-doners are sniping after the fact about going to school only because they feel forced to, and when there’s increasing evidence that many of them have already been very well-compensated by shoe companies before college, then there’s no reason to have them on board.

The committee also was on point in its advocating for increased penalties for NCAA violations. Multi-year postseason bans, bans on cheating coaches, contractual requirements to follow rules and more punitive penalties are a must. For those who believe that sanctions don’t deter cheating: how much have we heard about SMU football in the last 30 years?

Telling the NCAA that its previous hands-off approach on academic fraud is spineless also was a welcome sight. And its reasoning for why the one-year transfer sit-out period should stay in place was far more thoughtful and detailed than 99.9% of what most will read about the topic.

Some of the proposals were less exciting, and most everyone can find something they wish had been included. We personally would’ve liked to see a blistering rebuke of those involved in the rampant behind-the-scenes tampering in the sport now.

It’s hard to see exactly what some reasonably expected from the commission, though. The type of changes some are daydreaming about (specifically: paying players, or name-image-likeness rights, a.k.a. legalized boosterism encouraging boosters to create endorsement schemes to pay them instead) were very unlikely to be suggested, and anyone who’s being a little honest with themselves knows it. And if or when the time comes when NIL is passed, that will be the day that the self-titled “Power 5” and their mega-boosters that would soon serve as unofficial franchise owners should’ve really been leaving the NCAA and go play on their own.

Overall, the report was productive, and its sorely needed call for accountability, for everyone to “do better,” and suggestions how to do so was refreshing. For those who didn’t read it (and there seem to have been many), the commission called out literally every stakeholder in the sport. Administrators, presidents, athletic directors, coaches, outside influences, even athletes and their families. You name the party, the commission had application for improvement for them.

Accountability is not always easy, but it should be something everyone can get behind. Everyone espouses to it, even if not always practicing it. It certainly beats the hopeless, aim-lowest alternative some suggest.

It sounds nice to some to say that the solution to all of the NCAA’s issues is to just acknowledge that everyone cheats, let everyone cheat, and everyone will have a nice day. It’s not true that everyone cheats, but it makes a good story for cynics.

It is true that cheating has always happened in college sports, and always will. Human beings are sinful. It’s what we do. Also, humans are competitive, and some will always look for an edge in ways they shouldn’t.

It’s the same way that some will always drive faster than road signs say they’re supposed to. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of the speed limits, patrolmen, stop signs and even the lines marking lanes, too.

We should expect more of educational institutions entrusted with our youth. Shoot, for those so fixated on the business side of college athletics and how it affects a select few of the thousands and thousands of participants, we’d point out more is expected of even businesses than they expect of college athletics. (Even professional sports leagues are tougher on tampering than college sports is right now).

The Rice Commission was right on in noting that regardless of how much money they take in, schools still have an obligation to educate student-athletes.

Sourpusses on Twitter can pooh-pooh the value of a college degree all they want, but the fact remains that many of the participants do not. While the discussion of payment for literally the top few players is all the rage, the truth is many athletes take full advantage of their college experience and find it incredibly rewarding.

Schools absolutely owe them as much. We would’ve liked the commission to address schools and coaches on the amount of time the sports are taking up. If colleges are restricting access to majors or not allowing athletes to reasonably get the most out of their collegiate experience, then there’s no reason not to push for better in the name of student-athlete well-being. There’s no correlation requirement that increased revenue needs to mean athletes spend many, many hours outside the classroom in their sport.

The Commission also was correct in pointing out that even student-athletes and their parents have responsibility.

It doesn’t matter how ‘elite’ a talent is: when they choose to participate in NCAA athletics, they are pledging to follow the rules. It’s also up to athletes and their families to take advantage of the educational opportunity they are given. If they do see that opportunity as meaningless, though, then perhaps it’s time to point out what a poor decision that is.

By this point, college athletes should be well aware of the odds of them actually making it pro in their sport. If they still choose to ignore that and focus entirely on their athletic career as a priority over their education, it’s their choice, but maybe we should call that what it is: not a very good one. Especially for those who aren’t the elite, top-of-the-top talent, athletes would be highly advised to take advantage of the educational opportunities available for them in exchange for their hard work playing their sport.

The call for better from coaches and administrators rang loudest of all. As it should have.

Again: at the end of the day, the amount of money involved is no excuse. Schools still have responsibilities to student-athletes.

They also have responsibilities to the governing body that they choose to be a part of. The endless griping about the NCAA almost without exception fails to take into account a very simple fact: the NCAA is what its member schools want it to be.

Contrary to how it is regularly portrayed, it is not an independent, benevolent bureaucracy forcing unwanted decrees on schools and athletes. The NCAA’s rules are all voted on by the membership. At the NCAA Division I level, a small subset of schools who have been greatly endowed by television contracts has held up the rest of Division I for increased power over rule-making, so those rules already have a slant that offers even more benefit to those top 1% of athletes that so many media are concerned for. Those schools also have had an increasing influence on just how the NCAA does (or doesn’t do) business when it comes to sanctioning and deterring behavior.

And so, on the simplest level, if outsiders don’t like the NCAA, then overwhelmingly their blame needs to be on the schools themselves, and especially the schools in power. While it’s perfectly fair to question whether the NCAA president (currently Mark Emmert) should take on a more active public role than just negotiating a very fat NCAA Tournament TV contract, the fact is the president is not making the rules.

Most of those rules are black and white, crystal clear. They have been approved by the schools, and all who choose to be members of the NCAA agree to follow those rules.

If one has a real understanding of how the NCAA works, or if they really are concerned about the student-athlete, then it should disturb them just how bucky schools have become when their misdeeds are caught. The top schools have very clearly committed to a strategy of intimidation any time they might be faced with heavy sanctions. Whether it was Penn State (and after the school willingly went along with penalties from the Jerry Sandusky scandal), Louisville and Syracuse in recent years with basketball violations, or North Carolina in its academic mess. Rather than cooperating-once again, as schools pledge to do as NCAA members-they now are combative.

In short, the schools don’t want to follow the very rules they vote on and commit to follow. This is the example coming from adults who regularly tell us how much they’re in college sports for their love of educating and working with young people.

Quite simply, it’s embarrassing.

The schools have no excuses to ignore the very rules that they make. The Commission was right on target suggesting that coaches’ and administrators’ contracts should include clauses demanding obedience of NCAA rules. And if they don’t want to follow the rules, if they can’t handle the accountability that is needed from them, then they need to get out of the NCAA.

In fact, that message could apply for almost all who were called in the report. Schools, administrators, coaches, participants-and yes, even athletes.

Major college sports will never be perfect. It always will be a unique dichotomy (Trichotomy? More?) with conflicts. But the benefit so many receive from it shows it’s still a worthwhile enterprise.

Any entity that is to thrive in the long run demands accountability. And even if some get what they want for the 1% and the amateurism model is overturned, it won’t fix the fact that everyone involved right now seems to want to blame everyone else for their problems. Lack of accountability is a sign of bad leadership at many levels, and bad leadership will eventually lead to crumbling.

Once again, Rice summed it up very well in her closing statements.

“It is clear the NCAA has often failed to carry out its responsibility to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body. But the NCAA is not really Indianapolis. It is the sum total of its member institutions.

“When those institutions and those responsible for leading them short-circuit rules, ethics and norms in order to achieve on-court success, they alone are responsible. Too often, these individuals hide behind ‘Indianapolis’ when they are the ones most responsible for the degraded state of intercollegiate athletics, in general, and college basketball in particular.”

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam

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