Burn the NCAA rule book

07.10.09 9 years ago 28 Comments

If you’re not heavy into recruiting — and all the grainy homemade videos and who-knows-the-source message board scouring that subculture entails — there’s not a lot to follow in the college basketball offseason. Aside from coaching changes, the occasional transfer, and the who’s-in/who’s-out of the NBA Draft, college basketball pretty much goes to sleep between March Madness and Midnight Madness.

But one kind of story that regularly pops up in the offseason is when a program gets itself in trouble. Running the gamut from the ticky-tack complicated stuff to the Tim Floyd/Jim Harrick-level “Why did you think you’d get away with that?” variety, NCAA violations are as much a part of the college hoops offseason as team-building pickup runs.

Except at this point, it’s time to re-evaluate the rules being violated, take that big book of NCAA regulations, and subject it to a major slash-and-burn session.

At least from what makes the news, it seems most NCAA rules are outdated at best and obsolete at worst. The world in general is a lot different than it was when a lot of these rules were last updated, American culture is even more different, and the business and industry of sports — and yes, college basketball is a business — doesn’t even resemble what it was back in the day.

The ideal of pure amateurism beyond Little League officially died around the time NBA players started playing in the Olympics and sneaker companies no longer had to skate around the practice of hooking high school (and younger) kids up with shoes and gear to earn their brand loyalty. It died when coaches started signing six- and seven-figure endorsement contracts, when schools got big checks to wear certain labels, and when players got nothing extra out of the deal. It was long dead by the time somebody like LeBron James even briefly flirted with NCAA sports, and that was six or seven years ago.

So instead of going through the process of modifying almost every rule in the book, then re-educating programs around the country, just to stick by this idea of amateurism — and instead of rehashing old arguments, like whether or not to pay players a stipend — why don’t we just get rid of most of the book altogether? Why don’t we allow college sports, like college culture itself, to be a free-market society?

If Joe Booster wants to give Clemson’s two-guard $200 because he hit the game-winner against Duke, who cares? If Patty Program Supporter wants to hook up Oregon State’s center with a summer “job” that consists of inspecting the campus buildings to see if they’re still there, who cares? If Big State’s coach is sitting on a nice chunk of money (did you see John Calipari‘s house in Memphis?) and wants to use his own cash to buy a recruit dinner or buy one of his current players a video game — or if he just wants to flat-out buy a kid’s signature on a letter of intent — who cares? If a 12-year-old child actor/model can have endorsement deals and make money off their image, why can’t the 20-ppg scorer at Kentucky, arguably the biggest celebrity in the state, appear in a commercial and get compensated for it?

Aside from Pete Bell‘s own sense of morality, who was really hurt when Ricky Roe‘s dad got a new tractor, or Butch McRae‘s mom got a job, or when Happy facilitated Neon Boudreaux inevitably getting car-jacked in New Orleans? (Alright, maybe somebody got hurt there.) But if those NCAA rules didn’t exist, Bell wouldn’t have even had that moral dilemma.

Now, I’m still a fan of “pure” college basketball (and college sports in general). I have a ton of respect for basketball coaches like Bob Knight and John Thompson, and football coaches like Ty Willingham who run clean programs and graduate their kids, even if it comes at the expense of losing games. I’m not saying every school should be a quasi-halfway house like Miami football used to be, or should have a GED All-Stars roster like Cincinnati basketball used to. But if enthusiastic alumni want to spend their own money “helping out” their school’s athletes, what’s the problem?

College basketball won’t look that much different. Things will even themselves out. The schools that have the most money to spend — Duke, Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, etc. — already get the top players anyway, so it’s not like that balance of power will be thrown off. And there are enough star high schoolers where the rosters of every other program will still be filled out even if they don’t have boosters paying their pockets. Donors aren’t going to give ALL of their money every year to frivolously spend on their favorite teams. The institution of NCAA sports will not crumple to its knees if coaches are allowed to give their players a ride home when it’s raining, or if Luke Campbell is slipping a kid $50 for an interception.

And there should be some rules. The ones limiting how often coaches can contact recruits is a good one because it protects kids and their families from too much distraction during their high school career. The rules that enforce academic achievement work in everyone’s best interest. The rules that put some limit on how (and how often) you can declare for the Draft help college coaches run better programs and improve the product on the court. And of course I’m all for keeping point-shaving and steroids and SAT cheating and all that bad stuff out of the game.

But those rules that offer a challenge to common sense; the ones that prevent real-life mentors from doing things the mentor of a “regular” kid would do; the ones that only exist to uphold an ideal that is no longer real — those are outdated, overbearing, and ultimately unnecessary.

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