It’s almost time. From Selection Sunday, when it really begins, to “One Shining Moment” as it closes, March Madness—the NCAA men’s basketball tournament—is just about upon us. The teams are picked this weekend and the first tip is March 13. Only this year, it’s a little tough to ignore all the trouble surrounding American college sports’ premier event and just enjoy the hoops.
If you’re a casual basketball fan, someone who pays the copy guy $5 and fills out a bracket over coffee, like the estimated 70 million brackets completed last year, you might not have given it much attention.
But what’s happening is the FBI is deep into a broad investigation into bribery related to steering players to particular businesses. Meanwhile, Yahoo Sports says it has examined case documents that potentially show a host of NCAA violations in the form of impermissible gifts and loans from agents to players and their families.
School names that have come up include some of the nation’s elite basketball programs, including former champions Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina, and Michigan State.
The investigation has already ended the Louisville career of coach Rick Pitino, though a previous scandal—including entertaining recruits with strippers—had him close to the edge in any event, and has resulted in a vacated national title.
Many aren’t that surprised or angry that college athletes, playing for schools that make millions of dollars from sports, could have received payments for playing basketball. But the FBI investigation matters if no other reason than this: It hits the NCAA squarely on its most valuable property. So what happens next could be very interesting, and could lead to major changes in college sports as we know them.
It’s not a huge stretch to say that the NCAA, which is made up of more than 1,100 college and university members, the nation’s athletic conference, along with some other sports organizations, exists because of March Madness.
Check out the latest NCAA financial statement, for the year ending last Aug. 31. Roughly four in every five dollars, or $821 million out of total revenue of more than $1 billion, came from television and marketing rights fees—mostly March Madness.
And the vast majority of what the NCAA brings in, it sends back out to its member schools and conferences.
So, bottom line, a scandal that whacks men’s basketball could hurt everybody if either fans become disillusioned with widespread rule-breaking or so many good teams got penalized that the competition is badly watered down.
NCAA President Mark Emmert knows all this, of course, and he knows it’s his job not to let the system fall apart. Pundits already have been busy declaring the NCAA’s model of amateurism a sham. Outspoken NBA superstar LeBron James, who did not play college ball, called the organization “corrupt.”
For his part, when federal prosecutors announced their first arrests in the case last fall, including four assistant coaches, Emmert did what bureaucrats do when they’re in trouble: He created a commission. This one, led by Condoleezza Rice, is supposed to make recommendations for reform in April, after this year’s tournament but with time for them to be adopted ahead of next year’s basketball season.
In a recent interview with CBS, Emmert indicated that has to happen.
“We need to act and have changes in place before tipoff of next season,” he said. “Failure to do that will really erode everyone’s confidence in what this wonderful game is truly all about.”
What will those changes be? I have no magical or fly-on-the-wall insight, though it seems reasonable to think the basketball player-agent relationship is going to change, even if that means new rules about contact and money exchanges, including expenses such as business dinners, between players and agents.
Theoretically, such a thought is supposed to trigger outrage at the NCAA’s headquarters. It’s supposed to feel like surrender and a blow to amateurism. But Emmert himself brought up agents in his CBS interview as a possible area for reform.
Of course, subsequently, he told The Associated Press that the schools paying players is out of the question.
Those two positions illustrate the increasingly tight bind the NCAA is in. It wants to keep its $1 billion in annual revenue, but it can’t get away from the fact that the players on the floor this March officially practice 20 hours a week and get no paycheck, per NCAA rules, while making an ever-increasing amount of money for their schools, conferences, and the governing body itself.
At some point, the optics of that are so stilted they demand radical change, and a more equitable system of compensation for players. The thing that makes it possible that moment is now—vs. previous scandals—is the presence of the FBI and federal prosecutors, who can put much more pressure on witnesses than the NCAA can.
While rich, powerful institutions are generally loathe to give up either money or power, it wouldn’t shock me if the NCAA ultimately agreed to let undergraduate hoop players sign their own endorsement deals, for instance. That way the NCAA could still cling to the idea that it doesn’t pay players, but just wouldn’t stand in the way if someone else does. And star players, at least, would benefit financially.
If the NCAA wants to keep the Madness going, that may just be good business.
John Affleck is Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State and the director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.