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Keith Strudler: College Basketball On The Brink

Without belaboring the point, this Thursday and Friday are, technically speaking, the two greatest days of the calendar year. That’s because they are the first two days of the men’s NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Which means that over the course of two days, 64 teams will be cut in half through 32 single elimination games. That’s approximately 64 hours of high intensity basketball played between the hours of noon and midnight Thursday and Friday. I’ll spare you any additional math, but needless to say, if you are a college basketball junkie, and I am, this is what heaven looks like. Only in heaven, I pick all 32 games correctly and win my office pool.

But despite the grandeur of these two days – and several to follow – things aren’t all alright in college hoops. In fact, some teams in the tournament are playing under the specter of NCAA and perhaps criminal investigations because of an alleged bribery scandal that involved paying players and coaches and shoe companies and all the things that affirm our worst beliefs about the impurity of college athletics. University of Arizona, for example, is under the spotlight because the FBI has recorded conversations of their coach Sean Miller discussing $100,000 payouts to recruits. Oh, and one of Miller’s assistants was arrested for taking bribe money to steer players to financial advisors. Other schools under investigation – like USC – were surprisingly left out the tournament field. Some believe that’s not a coincidence.

What also may not be a coincidence is that a disproportionate number of schools come from the PAC 12 Conference, one of the nation’s presumed leaders both athletically and academically. So, in response to all that, PAC 12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott and his task force just released a 50-page document on, for lack of a better way to put it, how to clean up college basketball. Recommendations include the following:  first, let high school players go straight to the pros, but if they go to college, they can’t go pro for at least three years. This eliminates the one-and-done ethos of college basketball, where star athletes use college as a one year holding pen before going pro. The report also recommends allowing athletes to talk to agents without losing their eligibility, allowing them get better career advice. It extends the recruiting calendar. And it encourages the NCAA to focus on serious infractions instead of the kind of small time stuff that makes most people scratch their head. Like a coach being penalized for buying a kid a sandwich.

Those are the recommendations from the PAC 12, a conference that regularly competes for national championships in revenue sports and sends countless athletes to the NBA, NFL, and major league baseball – not to mention the Olympics. It’s also home of Stanford, Berkley, USC, and a bunch of other schools whose presidents would rather not read about shady cash deals and FBI wire taps. It’s not exactly the stuff of academic prestige.

What the task force did not recommend, not surprisingly, was paying players. Or allowing athletes to make money off their likeness. Or allowing players to unionize, or take a much reduced course load, or any of the other recommendations made by labor activists. In other words, what they didn’t do was acknowledge that big time college sports, like college basketball in the PAC 12, is basically professional. And a whole lot of the problems the FBI is looking at right now – like how shoe companies are filtering cash to star athletes – might be happening because the model of unpaid labor generating big time cash under the guise of higher education isn’t particularly stable.

Needless to say, many critics of college sports – particularly labor activists -- aren’t particularly pleased with the task force’s report. It’s a package of Band-Aids when they’d prefer open heart surgery. And let’s be honest – I’m fairly certain most of these recommendations won’t get past committee anyway. Good luck telling Kentucky Basketball boosters they can’t recruit McDonald’s All-Americans anymore. So a lot of this is theoretical, which I suppose is much of what happens on a college campus.

But know this. As we all settle in for the greatest two days in college sports – or perhaps the world – college athletics is nearing a breaking point. So much that Condoleezza Rice is now heading a national NCAA task force to try and fix it. The PAC 12 was simply trying to get ahead of that story, whatever it may be. College sports administrators from the West Coast have presented a blue print to try and preserve a model that increasingly doesn’t work – where high paid coaches and administrators run semi-pro teams on university campuses with unpaid athletes that may not want to be there and might be taking bribe money on the side from a shoe company. Sounds stable, right? Which is why Thursday and Friday may be the best days of the year. But, sadly, they may not be for long.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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