Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight Would be a Step Up for the NCAA

“What are you prepared to do?”

That quote from Jim Malone in The Untouchables crossed my mind after reading the hyperbolic coverage last week of top recruit Jalen Green choosing to bypass college for the NBA’s professional pathway program. Some of the headlines included things like how it “leaves NCAA with life-or-death decision,” but I wouldn’t take it quite that far – the new G League Pathway Program is apparently only open for a select few of elite prospects. What I would agree with however, is that the NCAA needs to adapt and update how it handles college basketball or else it will gradually become an even more marginalized product.

That’s the thing that’s been frustrating to watch as a fan of college basketball – how the NCAA under President Mark Emmert has acquiesced to the NBA and seemingly entrenched itself into a perpetual PR campaign of trying to be some sort of bastion of purity and an idealized version of amateurism, and failing. Spectacularly.

I think it’s a noble idea for the NCAA to work with the various professional leagues for the advancement of their sports – the MLB, NFL and NHL all work with the NCAA in varying degrees. But the actions aren’t altruistic – they’re obviously rooted in self-interest. The professional leagues enjoy the exposure, the training, and the evaluation opportunity colleges provide, while the NCAA benefits from top-tier competition generating interest & excitement and the added bonus that revenue doesn’t need to be shared with its athletes. For the most part, there is creative & competitive tension between the NCAA and professional sports, but the system works.

Except when it doesn’t. And right now, between the NBA and the NCAA, it doesn’t.

The biggest sticking point with their overlapping interests has been the dance around the one-and-done rule since 2007. Emmert has played nice – maybe too nice – hoping that the NBA would eventually put rules into place that would result in a model that solved the one-and-done problem. There’s been just one issue with that, however: the NBA believes the problem is the NCAA’s and has no real interest in coming up with a solution.

Well – the biggest sticking point was the one-and-done rule, that is. Now the NBA has launched their Pathway Program, aimed at bringing in elite, high school talent to be groomed in a minor-league style setting and bypassing college completely. It wasn’t just a warning shot across the bow, it was a full crescendo of broadside cannons announcing that the battle for talent was on.

Naturally, the NCAA quickly responded by…doing nothing. Oh, I’m sure there’s a blue-ribbon style committee in the not-too-distant future that will issue flowery proclamations ultimately steering the conversation towards the NCAA’s responsibility to an outdated model of amateurism, but for now – crickets…

Which is an incredibly odd response given how the overwhelming majority of the NCAA’s revenue comes from the NCAA Tournament. One could argue that the NCAA doesn’t need to immediately take action given that the current contracts go through 2032, but given how slowly the NCAA responds to anything of average importance, it seems like the time is now for addressing the gauntlet that was thrown down by the NBA.

Which is why I thought of The Untouchables and Sean Connery’s Jim Malone. “What are you prepared to do?” Does the NCAA realize it has been hoping for a life preserver to be thrown by the NBA when the NBA didn’t really care whether it was drowning? Is the NCAA fine with college basketball not being part of the national consciousness unless it’s March and always behind the NFL, college football, NBA, FIFA and MLB? Does the NCAA believe that people will always tune in because it’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters despite what ratings trends reveal?

Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, hope is not a strategy. What is the NCAA willing to do in order to protect its product and viability?

Jim Malone ultimately answers his own question with the following: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

Indiana Jones listened to the lessons of Jim Malone…

There are many things the NCAA needs to institute and/or correct, ranging from rules improvements to allowing for athletes to receive compensation (via name, image & likeness; revenue sharing, or some other method), but most of those initiatives will require more time to evaluate and implement. What I’m proposing is a fairly straightforward action (with a handful of related items) that can be put into place immediately and serve as a notice to the NBA that the NCAA has put on its big-boy pants:

Allow for any athlete in academic good standing with eligibility remaining to be able to go back to school after the NBA draft if they so choose.

I realize some college coaches might grumble about the challenge this creates for recruiting, but coaches always grumble about any change. And if the coaches or the schools grouse about how this could create havoc with the maximum number of available scholarships, it seems like it would be fairly easy to address this via some sort of exemption – programs are allowed one returnee per year (or a certain number every few years) to reach a total of 14 scholarships (instead of 13), provided the school wants to provide this benefit.

I’m sure that most of the college athletes who were selected in the draft wouldn’t return, but think of the number of players who were disappointed by where they were drafted, what team they were drafted by, or if they weren’t drafted, at all? I can envision a situation for a player like Devon Dotson – a great college player but not clearly an elite talent for the NBA – who believes that he should be taken in the first round (and probably should) and receive a guaranteed contract, only to find himself selected in the middle of the second round by a struggling franchise with a roster already heavy on guards.

Sure, the NBA minimum salary is almost $900K, but that’s assuming Dotson makes the roster. If Dotson doesn’t, he’s looking at a base salary of $35K in the NBA G League, earning more by hopefully being called up to the NBA or earning some of the G League bonuses, or playing overseas. School isn’t for everyone and if you want to move on from it, great – but in general, do you think most athletes would choose $35K and the bus rides to mostly-empty arenas, or the first-class experience, exposure and attention that comes from playing under a Hall-of-Fame coach at the University of Kansas?

Obviously by definition the college experience is one of transition and eventually every athlete will move on – one way or another. But why just roll over for the NBA? The NCAA would also need to remove many of the overly-restrictive rules such as dictating how many pre-draft camps & NBA workouts prospects could attend as well as any off-season programs. The NCAA should also allow greater access and discussion with agents, lawyers, accountants and any other representation that can provide guidance for these types of decisions. In nearly every other aspect of life it is encouraged to solicit professional opinions about significant and life-changing decisions, so why should this be any different?

Obviously top schools such as Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky would benefit from this change, but they wouldn’t be the only ones. Schools from the Power 5 conferences that aren’t traditional, basketball powers or mid-majors would benefit, as well. Many times these programs have a player or two that greatly elevate their teams for a season or make a name for themselves with a hot run in the NCAA Tournament, and these players decide to parlay their moment into a chance to get to the NBA. If they aren’t selected and are able to return back to school, don’t you think the interest in their team will be heightened for the following season?

Because that’s what the NCAA should be aiming for – putting the best, most entertaining and most interesting product on the floor. Allowing athletes to return to school after they’re drafted probably won’t result in a flood of talent back to the collegiate ranks, but at least it’s an option as well as a sign that the NCAA is interested in protecting its turf. The biggest challenge for college basketball every year is to grab the attention of the casual fan, and improving the chances that a player the casual fan might know could return to school can only help with grabbing their attention.

And even though Kansas is always going to be able to bring in top-tier recruits and put teams on the court that are continually able to compete for championships, if this change helps – great.

And it shows the NBA that the NCAA is no longer willing to settle for bringing a knife to a gunfight…

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