Mayo Incident Raises Question of NCAA Rules

Unless you have your head stuck in the sand, it’s no surprise to hear OJ Mayo received benefits from agents and other “business associates” as far back as high school. He’s not the first, not the only, and not the last – to think otherwise is naive. College football and college basketball are big business, bigger even than some professional leagues. With more money involved, it’s becoming impossible to keep the athletes from reaping any benefits.

Who deserves the blame in this case: Mayo, the agents and runners, his parents, or USC? While each is at fault to an extent, the agents and runners are the brunt of the problem. They take advantage of kids, mostly from low to middle class backgrounds that need money. But the real culprit is the system. None of the parties involved will get punished severely enough to prevent it from happening again.

The NBA completely washes its hands of this issue, turning a blind eye. No agents get suspended, no players face ramifications. The NCAA will now conduct an investigation, and if they find wrongdoing, will remove the USC season from the record books, possibly take back the money the Trojans made for the NCAA appearance, and slap some sanctions on the school. Last season is over and done with, the players already played, the school received exposure, changing the record books is useless. Stripping the school of scholarships hurts future teams, but how much could Tim Floyd and the athletic department do to prevent this? The only option is pay Mayo themselves, an even worse violation, let him go elsewhere, probably lose more games, and eventually lose your job. It’s a losing proposition.

Jay Bilas did a fantastic job identifying the key stakeholders in the situation: agents, shoe companies, summer programs, the NBA, and the NCAA, and describing how each contributes to the problem and what they can do to help fix it. I agree with Bilas on many fronts, and suggest checking out the column. However, the key is repercussions. Governing bodies deliver punishment, in this case the NCAA and NBA must both assume responsibility.

As Bilas points out, the NBA needs to set ground rules for agent contact with amateur players, get involved with these investigations, and create stiff penalties for breaking the rules. Similar to baseball’s steroid policy, it started to work when the penalties became sever. If Bill Duffy Associates is guilty, decertify the entire agency for one year. Make all of its NBA clients find new representatives for a year. On the next offense, permanently ban the agency and any agents involved.

I don’t fully blame Mayo and his family because it’s so prevalent in the youth basketball culture. I’m sure many other players he rubbed shoulders with in high school received gifts. However, the argument that players are too young and naive is bogus. Rules are rules, high school students know the difference between right and wrong, parents and guardians certainly do. Players deserve punishment. In most cases, problems are not uncovered until after a player’s college career ends, leaving the NCAA powerless. Even so, suspending a player from school does not hurt that much since most athletes in this situation have their eyes on the NBA and the money. If player’s break the rules, they should face suspension from the NBA, or be withheld from the draft for a year. That costs the player and his family money. Right now, players don’t lose much from dealing with agents or shoe companies. They get money, maybe lose a few college records, see their school face punishment, and go off to the NBA to make millions. The only way to change that is to hit them where it hurts.

Another misconception is that the NBA’s one-year rule is at fault. This practice has gone on for years, before any rule existed – case in point the Fab 5 at Michigan. Stephen A. Smith penned a great piece in ESPN Magazine describing how its gone on in the playgrounds forever. If the NBA mimicked the NFL rule of three years out of high school, nothing would change. Players would still go pro, agents would still want a piece of the pie, they would just have to wait longer to reap the rewards.

Not to open Pandora’s box, but the age-old argument of whether to pay college players creeps up. If schools compensated athletes for the money they bring in, then players become less inclined to accept outside gifts. First, that is probably not true. People always want more, if players could collect money from the school AND an agent, they would. However, combined with harsher sanctions, compensation gives athletes another reason not to associate with runners. College athletics, even with these issues, has a certain purity and charm that would disappear by paying players. Having been a college student, the time commitment these athletes give the school is immense, more than any part-time student job. Compensating student-athletes on a work-study type of system, with a set amount per semester – similar to your average student – is fair. Take that a step further, tie the dollar amount students qualify for to GPA and seniority to help solve the classroom problem. Any payment beyond spending money in a work-study setup risks corrupting the sport further.

Finally, the NCAA needs to loosen its rules on colleges interaction with athletes. Preventing coaches that actually care about the players, not the money, from meeting high school athletes, while allowing corrupt agents and shoe companies to run a muck makes no sense. Bilas begins to lay out a good argument on how the NCAA should be more involved in grassroots summer programs, and help put regulations around them. If it’s a choice between having college’s chase high school stars earlier and make recruiting calls (Kelvin Sampson), or high school athletes accepting payments from the BDA’s of the world, which is the lesser of two evils.

The solution starts with the NBA and NCAA coming together and taking the issue head on, rather than pointing fingers and looking the other way. Everyone’s to blame to an extent, everyone deserves to be penalized to an extent. Until the governing bodies take action though, they are at fault, similar to baseball looking the other way on steroids until recently.

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