For months, I have been hearing that the NCAA was about to enact some major reforms designed to clean up college basketball recruiting. Each time I heard it, my reaction was, I'll believe it when I see it.
Well, now I've seen it. And I can hardly believe it.
Not only did the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors pass some significant reforms, they did so with the approval (coerced or otherwise) of all the major stakeholders -- most notably, the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Some parts of the package still need to be approved by the Legislative Council at the NCAA's convention in January, but that apppears to be a formality.
The overall objective of the reforms is to clamp down on what everyone acknowledges is happening -- namely, the funneling of money from college coaches to middlemen who have attached themselves like leeches to high school players. Sometimes, the middleman is looking for a job as a college assistant coach (or the assistant director of video coordination and basketball operations). Sometimes, the middleman is looking for seed money for his summer team, which is paid in donations to a company that is nonprofit in name only. Often times, the middleman is working on behalf of an NBA agent. His job is to steer the player to a college coach who will protect his interests, and then deliver the player to the agent when the kid's college days are through.
The most significant rule in the package the NCAA announced yesterday will prohibit college coaches from hiring someone onto his staff in order to get a player. This practice is technically already against NCAA rules, but since the quid pro pro is so hard to prove, it has gone on for decades. (I've written extensively in recent years about this tried-and-true technique, once with regards to James Harden and again when the target was John Wall. Though it should be noted that in Wall's case, the decision by Baylor coach Scott Drew to hire his AAU coach did not result in getting the player.) Now, the NCAA is taking the rule a step further by saying coaches may not hire any individual who was "associated" with prospects two years before or after the prospect's "actual or anticipated enrollment." In other words, no more quid and quo, regardless of whether there was a pro.
Some are speculating that this rule will not withstand a legal challenge. I disagree. This is not like the case of the restricted earnings coach, which the NCAA famously (and expensively) lost in a class-action lawsuit brought in the mid-1990's by former Duke assistant Pete Gaudet. That rule set an extremely low maximum salary for all coaches in a certain category across the country. This rule is closer to the nepotism prohibitions that exist at many schools. It applies to far fewer cases than the restricted earnings rule. Besides, the NCAA is not saying that Institution A can't hire Coach B. It's only saying it can't hire Coach B and recruit one of Coach B's players. And Coach B is free to work for any coach who did not recruit one of his guys.
The NCAA's reform package also clamps down on two of the other more popular scams going on in the world of recruiting: giving money to AAU programs thinly disguised as "nonprofits" and hiring amateur coaches to work at their basketball camps. It's good to see those practices fall by the wayside, but you can bet coaches will find some other loophole down the road. The idea to hire AAU coaches as camp counselors resulted from the NCAA's decision a few years back to eliminate the practice of coaches spending money to play exhibition games against teams that were run by AAU coaches. The whole process ends up looking like a pathetic game of Whack-a-Mole: As soon as you smack down one sordid method, another one pops up somewhere else.
To be sure, this reform package is no panacea for all that ills college basketball. Until the NCAA bands together with the NBA and the NBA Players Association to eradicate the cancerous presence of agents, college basketball recruiting is going to remain a very dirty game. But for the time being, we should give the NCAA credit for attempting to take a very serious step to address a very serious problem. Somewhere, Myles Brand is smiling.