The NCAA’s amateurism model creates black market that allow corruption to exist

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The best way I’ve been able to describe Tuesday’s revelations of a federal investigation into fraud and corruption in college basketball has been “shocking yet not surprising.”

It is truly astonishing to read through the pages of the charging documents in which the government lays out a case in incredible detail of the system in which money changes hands between shoe companies, middlemen, assistant coaches, financial advisers, agents and anyone else who can insert themselves into this apparently lucrative setup. The federal government says it has audio of discussions about this corruption. They claim to have video of in-person meetings. They’ve got a cooperating witness, multiple undercover agents and wiretaps that they say illuminates what otherwise operated in the shadows.

It’s the light here that’s shocking, as we long suspected what was happening under the cover of night. To finally see it up close and in person, in federal court papers, takes your breath away.

But are we really surprised that what’s been whispered about, suggested and assumed is, apparently, actually taking place? Of course not. And for a lot of reasons.

The most obvious cause is simply the money at stake.

On the college side, there are tens of millions of dollars flowing through athletic departments from television contracts, donations, ticket sales, merchandise and whatever else schools can slap a price tag on. That money translates into multi-million dollar contracts for head coaches and six-figure deals for assistants, who are in turn chasing those multi-million dollar head coaching jobs in large part on their ability to secure top-end talent. Coaches don’t move up the ladder without players.

On the financial side, once players go pro, there are potentially hundreds of millions up for grabs. With agents in line to grab a percentage of contracts and endorsements and financial advisors potentially managing those nine-figure sums, there is considerable dough to be made.

What was on display today in those charging documents, though, was the black market largely created by amateurism.

By shutting the door on players getting paid – either by schools or outside entities – NCAA rules have created space for these illicit activities to not only exist, but apparently become commonplace, if you want to take assistant FBI director William Sweeney at his word.

“We have your playbook,” Sweeney said of larger-scale investigation into corruption in hoops.

If players could be paid, again not just necessarily by schools but by third parties, there would be no need to pass the money off through middlemen whose only real asset is proximity to talent and youth whose NCAA eligibility depends on not taking money over the table. If an agent could take a prospect out to a steak dinner, give him a Rolex and some walking around money as a gesture to later get him to sign, there is less oxygen for third-party middlemen. If players got a piece of apparel contracts, there’s less incentive for sneaker companies to buy their loyalty illicitly.

With the money at stake here, it would probably be impossible to ever legislate or prosecute away shadiness and corruption, but NCAA amateurism rules create an ecosystem for the slimiest organisms to survive and thrive. It takes agency away from players and even institutions to police their sport. How can a school – or even the NCAA at large – be expected to rein in multi-billion dollar shoe companies? Or keep tabs on cash transactions that take place in Los Angeles, Morgantown, Miami and anywhere else an agent, coach, sleaze or slimeball can fly with a thick envelope? It took the feds a cooperating witness, undercover agents and wiretaps to get done. The NCAA doesn’t, and never will, have those tools at its disposal.

This isn’t to excuse or minimize the alleged crimes committed here. These adults knew what they were doing. They, allegedly, made their own choices with at least a theoretical understanding of the potential consequences. They’re the symptom of what amateurism has created, though.

The money big-time college basketball generates is real. It’s also partially artificially inflated because by the simple fact of cutting players – and their families – out, there’s that same amount of cash with fewer people to claim it. That allows things to get ugly, first on the fringes and then further and further to the center of things as the practice becomes a playbook.

Outlaw something and you create outlaws. Fighting the power of capitalism and the simple economic principle of supply and demand is always going to be in a losing effort. Most of the time that tradeoff is acceptable and necessary. Keeping cash out of young basketball players’ hands to prop up an antiquated amateurism model in which so many people get so much doesn’t seem like a trade worth making.

To see the FBI invade the space of college basketball is truly shocking.

Given how that space has been allowed to fester for years though, it’s not really all that surprising.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.