Player Control: How the NBA is Suffocating the College Game

I’m not sure where or when this notion began creeping into my head about college basketball and its relationship with the NBA, but the form of this idea has solidified over the course of this season. I have been watching college basketball as frequently as possible–in an earnest effort, mind you, to prove my theory wrong. Unfortunately, the data have shown me the opposite. The NBA and the NBAPA have dealt college basketball a mortal blow from which it will not recover on its own.

Author’s Note: If you are a fan of the NBA and you made it to this point, you’re likely already dismissing this article as alarmist or ignorant, which is fine. Blind apologetics is a widely-practiced religion in the world of sports, especially in the Church of Social Media. I cannot say I’d be surprised. However, I must encourage you to consider the following and assign it the proper weight in your conclusion. 

In 2005, the landscape of basketball changed. The NBA and NBAPA agreed to amend the rules governing first year player eligibility–specifically, draft age. The rule advanced the required age to be drafted to 19 years old in the calendar year in which the draft occurs. Simply, if you turn 19 in 2016, you are eligible to be drafted in the 2016 draft. This applies regardless of the player’s age at the time of the draft–players can be 18 as long as they have a birthday before the end of the year. The second stipulation is that any player drafted must be at least one year removed from the graduation year of high school. The second stipulation supersedes the first, and effectively mandates a year of collegiate basketball, or idleness, before a player can make his foray into the league.

Let’s try to look at this evenhandedly. How does the NBA benefit from this provision? For starters, basketball has a gulf of talent between great and average. We’ll call it “Skills Inequality.” Before the new draft rules, Many high school players saw the opportunity to enter the NBA and forego college ball as a way to get rich quick. For many of the inner city poor (admittedly a disturbingly large portion of aspiring professional athletes) the notion of entering the NBA after high school became an entitlement complex rooted in delusion instead of a dream reserved for a privileged few. As a result, the NBA saw an immense influx of 18 year old kids. Many of these players declared for the draft, with only a few actually getting drafted. Fewer still were actually viable NBA prospects. Most of those drafted were sent to the NBA developmental league or played internationally with the hopes of getting moved up. Most of them flamed out and failed, with nothing but maybe a high school education and a beat up body to show for it.

As a fix to this reality, David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner at the time, floated an idea to the ownership. Stern suggested that the draft age should be advanced from 18 with no qualifications to 20. As with all major sports, the ownership periodically negotiates with the players’ union to update the league’s collective bargaining agreement, or CBA. Around 2005, the NBAPA agreed to the current rules of age 19 with 1 year removed from graduation in return for other considerations for the players. There’s no real solid data on whether the change did accomplished what it set out to do; however, the year long cooling off period puts more high school players into college ball. This, in turn, gets the average (by NBA standards) players around coaches who provide honest feedback about their chances at the next level, and hopefully leads to fewer uneducated failures flunking out of the NBA. The new rule serves to provide a far more extensive separation between professional basketball and high school varsity basketball. This separation to fans appears glaringly apparent, but it wasn’t to a high school kid who aspired to be one of the players making millions of dollars every year. By clearly devising a way for collegiate basketball to be an intermediate league and not a consolation prize, the NBA saved many of these young men from themselves.

This fix was easy to spin for both the NCAA and the NBA. The NBA cited the reasons listed in the foregoing. The NCAA gained overnight credibility to high level recruits. Schools suddenly had the ability to market themselves as a place for players to refine their raw talents before making the leap into the NBA. We saw many schools embrace their role as a farm system, while others balked at the notion. Out of this development came the “one-and-done” pejorative to describe players who were in the college system out of necessity, but basically had the skill to play in the NBA at 18.

Eventually, conduit schools began to emerge in collegiate basketball. Take Kentucky, for instance–though they are hardly alone. Kentucky, even with its history of winning and pulling quality recruits, decided to modify its marketing approach from the traditional “Come here. Work hard. Get better. Win.” to “Come here. Play one season. Win. Leave.” This message has obvious appeal to players. The schools that want these players understand the mercenary nature of the one year players, and provide a dose of realism in the world of college athletics which too regularly relies heavily on rhetoric.

Here’s the problem. College basketball degraded because of the fleeting nature of one year recruits. The NBA’s rule completely disrupted the landscape of college basketball. The average age of players at top plummeted, and as a result the quality of the game suffers. Coaches no longer have time to teach more advanced concepts to their players because they only have summer and part of fall after high school before their most talented players leave for the draft. The quality has steadily eroded to the point where the game is bordering on completely unwatchable. 

The NCAA by and large has condoned, if not sanctioned, this degradation by allowing member schools to provide scholarships to players who never had any plans to stay more than one year. These scholarships are offered and accepted without any downside risk to the member. To pull college basketball back from the brink of irrelevance, the NCAA has to enact sweeping changes to the way the sport is recruited and played. Luckily, I have a couple of ideas for just how to do that.

If you follow college football recruiting, you may have heard rumblings of four-year, guaranteed scholarships. The push is there for college basketball as well, there are simply less scholarship so it’s not as noisy. These scholarships could not be pulled unless the player commits a major breach. The pro forma argument from self-named player advocates for four year scholarships is that it focuses intent around the players total education; it would also prevent the use of an annual scholarship award as a tool of manipulation. We’ve already broached the topic of embracing the notion of college basketball as a waystation on the way to the NBA for young players. The NCAA has apparently accepted its role as the NBA’s facilitator. Also consider that the NCAA has publicly come out against pay for players and continues to steadfastly cling to the notion that collegiate athletes are students first and athletes second. 

By this logic, the NCAA should be firmly behind the issuance of four year scholarships. If schools guaranteed players an education for all four years, the player would never have to worry about injury or poor play crushing his dream of getting an education. What’s that? You say that many of these players don’t care at all about an education? I’m so shocked! To point to another major problem, these one year players who have flooded the market are taking scholarships away from more deserving players. It’s similar to buying an authentic NFL football for Christmas, and giving it to Peyton Manning instead of your kid. Sure, he may throw it around and get some use out of it, but it still went to the wrong person. 

The truth of the matter is that the NCAA could not care less than they currently do about athlete matriculation. This is due to the fact that college sports fans are often louder and better funded than the people wringing their hands over the degradation of collegiate sports–I like to think of myself as fluidly ensconced in both camps, though not well-funded in either. Because of this, the sport’s governing body only cares about what makes people watch. Moreover, by using the notion that these NBA-caliber players are only around for one season, they have constructed an environment that thrives on the fleeting success of college basketball teams–March Madness and all its hype. Dynasties are dead; each season is a new slate for the teams that consistently recruit one-and-done guys.

To permanently improve the quality of college basketball (assuming the NCAA membership actually wants to), the rules committee must abolish one year scholarships. In their place, schools would offer 4 year scholarships. That’s the first piece of the puzzle. The second piece of a long term solution to this problem lies in how the scholarship rule is interpreted. Division I basketball is what is known as a “head count” scholarship sport, meaning that schools do not receive an annual allotment like football. They simply have a cap; in men’s basketball, the cap is currently 13.

For example, college basketball programs receive theoretically unlimited scholarships annually, but the number can never exceed 13. Under the current system, the team is restored a scholarship as soon as a player leaves the team, whether by transfer, quitting the team, or turning professional. The latter, of course, is the most impactful.

The problem with the absolute total system is that once these players leave for one reason or another, the school immediately has the scholarship restored for the following year’s class. So, teams like Kentucky, and other mercenary schools take a one year risk to get a great player who could take them to a championship. The four year scholarship can combat this by delaying the restoration of the lost scholarship for a period of time–maybe 4 years which is the length of the initial term of the scholarship.

So, in this new case, a school offering a one-and-done player has to weigh the risks of having a dead scholarship for a certain period of time after that player leaves the team. If you’re a poker player, a good analog would be the ‘dead small blind’ that happens when a player loses all of his chips the hand before he would owe the small blind. In poker, the next player provides the big blind and the small blind is forfeit for one hand. A lag in the restoration of a scholarship would precipitate a temporary, but effective, scholarship reduction for teams manipulating the system to capitalize on one-year players. In short, if you offer a player a 4 year scholarship and he leaves after one year, the team would be forced to count his scholarship against the 13 for three seasons after his departure, meaning they max out with 12 players.

The addition of the back end punitive element would provide college basketball much needed balance, and would align the incentives for schools with the original charter for the NCAA student-athlete. You could even structure the system to reward early graduation, but I do not intend to get further into the weeds on possible structure. The point is that the NCAA has fostered a culture in which schools are rewarded for embracing their role as a lily pad subsidiary of the NBA. Schools who focus on player development and building a team are at a massive disadvantage. This is backwards and needs to be fixed. 

I realize that the foregoing is a pipe dream and the uproar may cause many of the current “cheaters” to consider exiting the NCAA. However, the scholarships do not have to change to improve the game of college basketball on its face. The one-and-done players have very little to do with how awful it is to watch collegiate hoops. The officiating is just bad, and that’s coming from an official! I am the first to give the referees the benefit of the doubt, but basketball has a problem. The issue isn’t poor judgment, that happens at every level of basketball. The main issue is the inability to control the game. The philosophy among college basketball officials is: get the obvious fouls everywhere, the subtle fouls on the perimeter and in transition, and only the hard fouls inside the trapezoid (the shape formed by drawing diagonal lines from the free throw elbows to the point where the arc meets the end line).

If you’ve watched games this year as I have tried to, you will have noticed that centers commit violent crimes against humanity in the post that would be felonies in most states. Oftentimes, these fouls go uncalled in an effort to keep the big men in the game. Something has to give. 

The NCAA recently shortened the shot clock to speed up pace and up scoring, which worked. However, we still have plenty of games that have the winner in the low 60s because of “physical play.” And, spare me the vapid argument in favor of college basketball as better than the NBA because the teams play defense. That’s not it by any means. Players score less in college basketball because they aren’t as skilled as NBA players on offense, and because there are a lot more fouls that go uncalled. Fouling is inversely related to total scoring. Fouls on shooters either prevent or cause errant shots. It’s just that simple.

To combat this poor quality of play, the NCAA has options. They could add a personal foul to get the total up to six per game just like the NBA. Six fouls would allow officials more latitude to call more. Hell, they could even start calling fouls and just start fouling players out. Teams will adjust, or they will be playing their walk-ons. Finally, officials need to stop swallowing their whistles on the final two possessions of the game in close games. Teams are beginning to notice and are playing far more recklessly because a foul call is far less likely with less than 30 seconds to play in the game. 

The NCAA needs a culture shift that again embraces fundamentally sound basketball. Obviously, I would like to see the scholarship rules change. However, a change in the culture of officiating and the way the game is managed would begin to pay dividends immediately. Yes, some fans will be pissed. Here’s some news: some fans are ALWAYS pissed. Some fans are just pissed to be pissed. It’s how fans are. The NCAA has to take control of the narrative surrounding college basketball or viewership will continue to tank, thus drying up college basketball as a revenue sport.

There are holes in the boat and the tide is rising. The question is: if the NCAA is aware of this problem, do they care about fixing it?

Do we?

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