NCAA Basketball Recruiting Violations: Now, Tennessee

By Marcus Shockley

Worried your college basketball or college football team might get a visit from the NCAA soon? Well, if they do, they are probably going to find something.

If it seems like the NCAA suddenly woke up from a long winter’s nap in 2010 and decided to go on a King Kong-like rampage across major universities in the sports world, well, it’s because it’s true.

It’s actually more surprising that the NCAA didn’t start with basketball, which is one of the most corrupt and easily exploitable situations in all of college athletics. However, don’t believe the talking heads on ESPN when they tell you that it all started with Reggie Bush.

The NCAA has known about the problems in AAU baskeball and ‘runners’ for some of the top players for years, and the only reason they were spurred into action was the growing issue with players making college a one-semester stopover on the way to (usually short) NBA payday.

Do all college players get paid? No way, not even close. Do a ton of players get money and other considerations that are against NCAA rules? You’d better believe it. The latest recruiting scandal, this time rocking Bruce Pearl and Tennessee, should not be a complete surprise to anyone really familiar with college basketball.

Pearl comes across as affable person, and I loved his stunt of showing up bare-chested to a Lady Vols game covered in bright orange paint. He had success, albeit on a lower scale, prior to landing the job at Tennessee. He’d made the NCAA Tournament with upstart Milwaukee for three years running, which is a testament to his coaching ability. But Pearl started landing top recruits that made people wonder what was going on, and the NCAA is looking to lay down some law. While the ultimate decision on Pearl is still out, the fact is, the NCAA knows deals are getting done across college basketball and they intend to put a stop to it.

So, the questions remain:

What is the NCAA looking to stop?

The NCAA intends to stop the ongoing under the table deals for highly sought after recruits. The whole process involves more than just a head coach and a recruit. It involves, agents, runners and AAU teams. This isn’t a new game, but the AAU circuit and the quick NBA exit option has made deals much easier in too many cases.

What can the NCAA do to actually ‘fix’ the problem?

Beyond laying down punishments, the NCAA should be trying to figure out how to keep the problem from occurring in the first place.

Pretty specifically, the problem, which always existed, exploded with the sudden influx of early entrants into the NBA draft in the early 90’s. The talent level of the premier basketball league in the world became significantly weaker over the past two decades as more inexperienced players have flooded the league; ratings tanked as the product on NBA courts suffered.

In an attempt to improve his league’s product, NBA Commissioner David Stern instituted the age limit for the league, effectively improving the talent level. Scouts no longer were drafting off of high school rosters, but drafting players who had at least one year playing against college-level talent.

Consider that the one-year-rule moved Derrick Favors out of the number one draft spot (where he was projected when he graduated high school) and put John Wall in his place. That’s why the rule works for the NBA.

But what worked for the NBA doesn’t work for college basketball. Players who have one great year go pro, effectively making college basketball a true farm system. The NCAA could try and persuade the NBA to raise the age limit, but the player’s union will work to prevent it, and truthfully, the NBA doesn’t need to raise the age limit now that it’s working to stem the ratings losses.

The other tactic is that the NCAA could try and punish the agents and handlers. Currently, they go after the schools and coaches, while the agents, handlers and players leave it all behind for the big payday and bright lights of the NBA. It’s not really very effective at stopping cheating when the real people doing the cheating are long gone by the time anyone gets busted.

For the coaches, it can be a risk they decide to take in order to keep themselves employed. You simply cannot win at a major D1 school without major talent. Sometimes, rarely, a coach gets a gift player on his roster that no one knows about, like Gordon Hayward of Butler. But usually, players who can help you win are already on everyone’s radar.

If you are a coach at a major university and making $400-$600K a year, how are you going to last beyond two or three years? You have to win. Some coaches will take a chance, knowing that they might get away with it, or if they can avoid it for long enough, at least when they get busted, they’ll be wealthy enough to walk away.

However, none of this actually stops the problem effectively.

The NCAA, if it wants to actually put a stop to all of this, or at least slow it down, should institute the same three-year-rule on players that it already has for baseball. It’s the only way to prevent players who want to jump after one year from taking a scholarship and roster spot, and agents won’t be as keen on laying out money for players who won’t get drafted for another three years, if ever. It slows the dealings down. It doesn’t stop them…boosters who may not even have a university’s blessing can still circumvent the process to help their alma mater, and colleges who land top recruits profit heavily from the winnings.

But there’s one more significant point in all of this that the NCAA has worked hard to keep fans from realizing.

The NCAA Is Not The Law

There are laws in the country intended to prevent racketeering, extortion and fraud, and some of these types of deals fall right into those felony categories. However, guess what? Most of them do not.

It’s not illegal for some of the things that agents do, only against the NCAA’s rules, and lo and behold, the NCAA is not the law.

Not even close.

So while the NCAA talks a big game about punishing players, agents and coaches, their authority only extends so far. That’s exactly why players like Reggie Bush can take payments while in college, and then jump to the NFL without losing anything. Give back the Heisman? Yeah, who cares? He’s got millions of dollars, endorsement deals, a Super Bowl ring, a pension plan and a lot more. Honestly, the Heisman was just something he picked up on the way to his career.

In order to fix this, the NCAA has to recognize that the NBA isn’t going to solve this for them. The NBA can’t even solve it’s own labor agreements, being one of the worst managed leagues in the world, with several teams bleeding money every year with no end in sight. The NCAA is going to have to take matters into its own hands, and institute a three-year-rule.

And players will need to start deciding if they want to play for free for three years or try to get a job for a year. At least then they wouldn’t have to pretend to be amateurs for that year.

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