Don’t Use Athletes As Collateral To Punish Rule Breakers

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The biggest scandal to hit college basketball in my lifetime is happening right now. Yesterday, the FBI arrested 10 individuals as part of a corruption scheme–assistant coaches, corporate executives, financial advisors and an AAU coach. The individuals involved are accused of illegal activities spanning from wire fraud to bribery conspiracy. As Joon H. Kim, acting US Attorney for the southern district of New York, put it: “Month after month, the defendants exploited the hoop dreams of student-athletes around the country, allegedly treating them as little more than opportunities to enrich themselves.” Sure, Kim’s line could ring true as a description of the NCAA itself, but this is an earth-shattering investigation.

And, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Kim reiterated that this is an ongoing investigation, and later reports broke that big-time agent, Andy Miller, had his office raided and computer seized by FBI agents. More names will be dragged into the mud as this unprecedented FBI investigation continues.

Certainly, the identified defendants were aware that they were actively violating NCAA rules through their actions, but it’s unlikely that many (if any) of them knew they were violating the law of the land. It’s still unclear if their activity actually is illegal.

As many people in the industry already know and as many economists have pointed out, some of the “crimes” being cited have existed as common practice in college athletics for a long time. The money in major college athletics has skyrocketed over the years. It’s become a multi-billion-dollar industry, while player compensation has remained suppressed to a scholarship, room and board, books and more recently a cost of attendance stipend. As such, auxiliary forms of compensation and back alley dealing has remained prevalent in the industry due to amateurism rules arbitrarily capping the amount players can receive without jeopardizing eligibility.

In the wake of this scandal, much rhetoric has surfaced calling out the NCAA’s amateurism charade as the actual crime in all of this—rightfully so. Meanwhile, the NCAA and the implicated universities have expectedly feigned shock at the news, and will continue to play the victim.

Let me be clear here: the NCAA is not the victim. This scandal is the outcome of NCAA policy—attempting to preserve the amateurism fallacy while simultaneously maximizing revenue for itself, conferences and universities.

In fact, the term “victim” feels a bit strong here, so let’s focus on the “vulnerable” instead. And, who is going to be left the most vulnerable throughout the fallout? As usual, it will be the players.

Inevitably, players at the universities involved will be rendered powerless as punishments are levied against their rule-breaking schools. This means players who likely had nothing to do with the transgressions will be disproportionately impacted by the actions of others. Far too often NCAA penalties turn the players into collateral damage.

Louisville is presumed to be one of the alleged parties in the investigation. They have already fired their head basketball coach Rick Pitino and their athletic director Tom Jurich. Additionally, calls for the “Death Penalty” at Louisville are raining down. This is where the line gets crossed, and desire for retribution becomes misguided.

Let’s also keep in mind that as with all NCAA rules, there is no legitimate input from the athletes themselves–whose lives are most impacted by the rules. With that caveat in mind, let’s pull some info directly from and break down what the Death Penalty punishments may include:

  • The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sport seasons and the prohibition of all coaching staff members in that sport from involvement (directly or indirectly) in any coaching activities at the institution during that period

Prohibiting coaches from involvement makes sense here. But, this one heavily impacts the players, potentially stripping them of 25%-50% of their entire collegiate career.

  • The elimination of all initial grants-in-aid and recruiting activities in the sport involved in the latest major violation in question for a two-year period.

Again, this punishes the players. The NCAA’s presumed purpose is to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount. This penalty is completely counter to that purpose, reducing opportunities for athletes to be able to attend college. This is also evidence that athletes are underpaid. If athletes are overpaid, stripping a school of scholarships would actually be a reward for the school.

  • The requirement that all institutional staff member serving on the NCAA Board of Directors; Leadership, Legislative, Presidents or Management Councils; Executive Committee or other Association governance bodies resign their positions. All institutional representatives shall be ineligible to serve on any NCAA committee for a period of four years and

This one sounds reasonable.

  • The requirement that the institution relinquish its Association voting privileges for a four-year period.

Okay, fine on this one too.

Overall, two of the four penalties permitted under the Death Penalty overwhelmingly have a negative impact on players. This is insane. What’s worse, the players have no legitimate access to due process to challenge any punishments levied their way.

This illustrates how badly players need a legitimate players’ association to represent their best interests without any conflict of interest. Having such an entity would address many of the issues plaguing college athletics—hours, wages and working conditions.

I’m not saying the involved parties in this current scandal are undeserving of harsh penalties. But, we can not use players as collateral to punish the fat-pocketed administrators and coaches who violated the rules and cheated the system they helped to create.  


Luke Bonner is a former basketball player and long-time player advocate as a Co-Founder of the College Athletes Players Association and founder of Power Forward Sports Group


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