College Basketball + More Scandals = More Task Forces - Higher Education
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College Basketball + More Scandals = More Task Forces

by Gregory Clay

As the scandals in major-college basketball grow, so does the scrutiny. The Congressional Black Caucus became the latest entity to take an interest in the comings and goings of men’s college basketball players, coaches and sports agents.

The CBC last week announced the formation of a task force to examine issues involving payments to student-athletes and a bevy of other rules violations. CBC chairman Cedric L. Richmond will spearhead the task force, saying in a statement: “The purpose of this task force is to assess the treatment of student-athletes, including the extent to which they are able to get a college education, and the money that influences college sports, including the revenue that is generated by the student-athletes themselves.”

U.S. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus

Black athletes comprise 53 percent of Division I college basketball players in the NCAA, according to 2016-17 statistics compiled in the latest annual racial and gender report card produced by The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

The topic of clandestine and forbidden under-the-table payments to student-athletes comes under a broad NCAA heading and for years have been commonly referred to as “extra benefits” or “improper gifts.”

During the 2016-17 school year, the NCAA garnered more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time in history, according to sports business correspondent Darren Rovell of ESPN. The $1.06 billion in revenue was accumulated from September 2016 through August 2017, with the NCAA’s audited financial statements released last week.

What was the source of most of that revenue? The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, as the organization earned $761 million from the 2017 Tournament. Incidentally, that figure is projected to rise to $869 million this March, which is likely to increase the spotlight on the NCAA.

The 68 schools invited to the NCAA Tournament reap the benefits of free advertising and marketing. Studies show that they, on average, experience a 10-percent bump in applications from high school students for the next academic year.

Sherridan Schwartz hopes the NCAA’s billion-dollar money pot will improve diversity in a grass-roots sense at major-college basketball programs.

“The colleges and universities that compete on the elite levels of athletics boast some of the largest endowments and budgets; these schools would do well to ensure that diversity is better reflected in their professors and in their coaches,” Schwartz told Diverse.

Schwartz is a visiting professor of political science at Texas Southern University and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Houston in the interdisciplinary field of political science, race and higher education.

“It’s no surprise that some African-American males have found more access to certain universities if they are admitted as student-athletes. The real concern is the ‘opportunity gap’ that’s been identified in terms of lower African-American academic achievement and college admission in general. It is essential that we as a society ensure that African-American students aren’t left out of having equal opportunity both athletically and academically, and to do that we have to readdress how schools prepare African-American kids.”

The graduation rates between Black and White players remain a Grand Canyon-wide chasm. According to the NCAA Tournament racial report card released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) remained the same for Black players at 74 percent in 2018. For White players, the figure dropped from 93 percent in 2017 to 92 in 2018.

The 18-percentage-point difference is even more unsettling because Black basketball players didn’t gain. The gap between White and Black players narrowed only because the White graduation rate fell by a point.

However, Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of TIDES, saw some optimism in the slight narrowing of that gap.

“This decrease is a positive sign following last year’s findings where the discrepancy increased for the first time since the 2011 season,” he said in a statement. “This ties the smallest gap between graduation rates of White and African-American male basketball student-athletes since we started issuing the reports more than 15 years ago.”

But Lapchick also cautioned: “The most troubling statistics in our annual studies have been the large disparity between the GSR of White basketball student-athletes and African-American basketball student-athletes. Although it has shown a decrease of one percentage point this year, a gap of 18 percent remains unacceptable. I hope to see this year’s progress continue into the years to come until we eliminate this gap.”

Deandre Ayton

The racial disparity in graduation rates isn’t the only grim news. The issues of rules violations and improper payments reached a tipping point Feb. 23 when ESPN investigative college sports correspondent Mark Schlabach wrote this:

“FBI wiretaps intercepted telephone conversations between Arizona coach Sean Miller and Christian Dawkins, a key figure in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, in which Miller discussed paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats, sources familiar with the government’s evidence told ESPN.

“According to people with knowledge of the FBI investigation, Miller and Dawkins, a runner working for ASM Sports agent Andy Miller, had multiple conversations about Ayton. When Dawkins asked Sean Miller if he should work with assistant coach Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson to finalize their agreement, Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money, the sources said.

“The telephone calls between Sean Miller and Dawkins were among 3,000 hours of conversations intercepted from Dawkins’ phone by the FBI.”

Schlabach’s bombshell report sent shock waves through the college basketball world, with the maelstrom creating a national atmosphere of nervous uncertainty and constant speculation. Miller vociferously denied the allegations. Ayton, who is Black, was caught in the middle of a major corruption controversy. And Shaquille O’Neal’s son – a star high school basketball player – de-committed after declaring Arizona his college choice.

Because of the damning report against Miller that’s the focal point of the Arizona drama, Shareef O’Neal announced the day after the ESPN report was posted that he wouldn’t attend Arizona and was re-opening his recruitment. On Feb. 27, he declared his intention to attend UCLA. O’Neal, a 6-foot-9 forward who plays for Crossroads High School in Santa Monica, Calif., generally is considered one of the top-40 recruits in the nation.

Ayton’s situation seems all too common for some blue-chip Black basketball players being recruited by major colleges. The 7-foot Ayton is a 19-year-old freshman from the Bahamas who can score at least 20 points and grab at least 10 rebounds at any time for Arizona. One of the best players in the nation, he is probably certain to be a top-five pick in June’s NBA Draft.

One intriguing aspect of this case is that there has been no confirmation – at least, publicly – that Ayton ever took any payments.

Ayton could lead Arizona to a much-revered NCAA national championship during March Madness, increasing the school’s national prominence and raising millions in revenue in multiple ways for the university. He recorded 32 points and 18 rebounds late Saturday night as Arizona defeated the University of Southern California, 75-61, to win the Pac-12 tournament.

In many ways, college basketball is a story of bundles of money and the force of freshmen. Each NCAA Tournament game a school participates in earns its conference $1.7 million, to be paid out by the NCAA in installments across six years.

CBS and the TNT networks pay the NCAA for the rights to televise its March tournament games with a current 14-year, $10.8-billion contract that runs through 2024. An eight-year extension signed two years ago means the NCAA’s partnership with those TV networks will continue through 2032, with an additional rights fee of $8.8 billion. That’s a $1.1-billion-per-year extension.

College basketball can be full of other eyebrow-raising events.

On Sunday, a shaky Oklahoma team with a mediocre 18-13 record was named to the NCAA Tournament, a selection that surprised many, including basketball analyst Charles Barkley, who insisted the Sooners didn’t deserve it.

But Oklahoma has star power in freshman guard Trae Young, the first player to lead Division I major-college basketball in both scoring and assists in the same regular season. Young is a top College Player of the Year candidate and probably will declare for the NBA Draft in June.

Yes, an exciting player such as Young can sell tickets, even for a team that lost 11 of its last 15 games. Just follow the revenue.

The stakes are mountain-high in this multi-billion-dollar industrial complex called college basketball. And they are what led Congressman Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana, to say in a statement: “In the coming weeks, the CBC will engage college players, coaches and administrators, as well as leaders at the NCAA to determine what, if anything, needs to be done at the federal level to ensure student-athletes are getting what they’re giving to our most prestigious colleges and universities.”

Task force aside, another major issue looms over the college basketball scene: Should the federal government be poking around in the matters of an institution that already has a governing body, the NCAA?

No, according to Dr. Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington D.C. He told Diverse that the payments-to-athletes issue isn’t a public-policy matter.

“This situation sort of triggered what I have been thinking all along,” said McCluskey, whose writings and research include college sports. “My first reaction is, why is the federal government involved in this matter in the first place? It seems it should be handled internally.”

McCluskey questions whether payments to college players should be considered illegalto the point where the FBI and Congress become involved.

“I don’t think the government should have any say in this,” said McCluskey, who earned a master’s degree in political science at Rutgers University-Newark and a Ph.D. in public policy at George Mason University. “If colleges want to pay their athletes, I don’t have a problem with it. If they don’t want to pay them, that’s fine, too.

“If an athlete says, ‘I will only play for $50,000 a year,’ then it should be up to the school. I don’t see why this payment situation should be treated criminally. The colleges should be able to make decisions for themselves without interference from the federal government.”

However, the scandal that has dominated off-the-court headlines the past six months is trickier because it’s about more than colleges paying athletes under the table. It’s also about overzealous sports agents with connections to assistant coaches who act as intermediaries at major programs, funneling money to players with a quid pro quo understanding. That is, if a player signs with a certain college, said student-athlete will receive compensation provided he agrees to sign with that specific agent for professional representation upon the completion of the student-athlete’s college career.

That’s why assistant coaches Emanuel “Book” Richardson, 44, of Arizona; Tony Bland, 37, of the University of Southern California; Lamont Evans, 40, of Oklahoma State and Chuck Person, 53, of Auburn were charged last fall with various crimes during the FBI’s investigation. All four of them are Black.

Some observers have speculated that the schools’ and assistant coaches’ connections to the FBI probe and scandals were the precipitating factor in USC, Oklahoma State and Louisville not being invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Federal prosecutors said the men were accused of using bribes to influence star athletes’ choice of schools, shoe sponsors and agents. They face fraud and other charges that carry potential penalties of decades in prison.

Take, for instance, Person at Auburn. He was arrested and charged with six federal crimes, including bribery, conspiracy, solicitation of bribes and gratuities, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and travel act conspiracy, according to The Montgomery Advertiser.

According to federal documents detailing the FBI investigation into corruption involving the pay-for-play scandal, Person allegedly received $91,500 in bribery payments in a scheme to steer two unnamed Auburn players to certain agents and financial advisers

Also, Rashan Michel, a former NBA and NCAA referee and current custom clothing distributor who also is named as a defendant in the charges, allegedly agreed to accept approximately $50,000 in bribe payments in the case from an undercover federal agent

Auburn fired Person on Oct. 18. The three assistants from the other schools also were dismissed.

Some sat that much of the backroom wheeling-and-dealing occurs mainly because colleges don’t want an above-board, systematic payment system, ostensibly because university student-athletes wouldn’t be student-athletes anymore. They would be considered employees, similar to the coaches, faculty members, staff personnel, etc.

And that scenario introduces other issues such as wage scales, disability situations, taxation systems, workers’ compensation and hours in the work week.

The schools counter that they provide student-athletes free education, free meals, free lodging, free medical care – which should be compensation enough.

Task forces and commissions have been convened over the years to study such issues.

For example, the Knight Commission was created in 1989 to examine, formulate and recommend a reform agenda in response to highly visible athletics scandals and low graduation rates for college football and men’s basketball players that threaten the integrity of higher education.

And just last October, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the formation of a “Commission on College Basketball” at the semi-annual meeting of the Knight Commission in a ballroom at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, D.C. That commission is chaired by Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state during the George W. Bush presidential administration.

Rice is the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. She is also a founding partner of RiceHadleyGates, LLC, an international strategic consulting firm based in Silicon Valley and Washington. The firm works with senior executives of major companies to implement strategic plans and expand in emerging markets.

Rice’s study commission has 14 members, each serving a six-month term. Set to meet four times between November and April, the members are a prominent collection of leaders in higher education, college sports, government and business enterprises.

Emmert, in explaining the commission’s purpose, said, “The recent news of a federal investigation into fraud in college basketball made it very clear the NCAA needs to make substantive changes to the way we operate, and do so quickly. Individuals who break the trust on which college sports is based have no place here. While I believe the vast majority of coaches follow the rules, the culture of silence in college basketball enables bad actors, and we need them out of the game. We must take decisive action. This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change.”

Some of the Rice Commission members include former college basketball players David Robinson and Grant Hill, former coaches Mike Montgomery and John Thompson III and former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

The commission came in the aftermath of lurid details that became public in September following the FBI’s investigation of cheating, bribery and fraud that rocked the University of Louisville. A member of Louisville’s coaching staff allegedly provided prostitutes and strippers to recruits and players.

The NCAA then stripped Louisville of its basketball championship in 2013 and its Final Four appearance in 2012. Coach Rick Pitino was fired, saying, “I hired the wrong person for the job” in reference to Andre McGee, who, as Louisville’s director of basketball operations, paid for strippers and escorts at dorm parties.

The Louisville faithful, including Pitino, repeatedly have said that no one realistically can revoke or erase their national championship of 2013 because they won it on the basketball courts of the NCAA.

So, how effective are these commissions and task forces? And do college students, fans and spectators really care about college rules violations?

“The NCAA may have a strong incentive to reign in these corrupt programs if it starts losing money or fans or both,” McCluskey suggested.

He added: “The work of these commissions could go by the wayside. It could be the standard dodge. That is to say, these issues and violations have been drawing huge headlines recently, but once the headlines die down, the commissions could just go away.”

Or, McCluskey concluded, just change the term from “student-athlete” to “athlete-student.”

“If the fans really cared about violations and scandals, they would stop watching the games or attending the games. But I have a feeling that most fans would care moreso if their team wasn’t winning at all, rather than if their team was winning dirty.”

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