In a week that saw significant, and almost universally lauded, changes to some of the major rules governing men’s basketball, the most important harbinger of change regarding the future of the NCAA came from Rosemont, Illinois. Just two days ago, Jim Phillips, the Northwestern AD and inaugural chair of the newly-minted NCAA Division I Council, provided refreshingly candid insight into his thoughts on the current state of college basketball’s hotly-contested “one and done” debate. And in joining folks like Mark Emmert and John Calipari in castigating the current system, Phillips fired a shot across the bow at the NBA.
Phillips certainly didn’t mince words in apportioning blame for the current rules, stating “[f]rankly speaking, shame on us [the NCAA]. We’ve allowed the National Basketball Association to dictate what our rules are, or influence what our rules are at the collegiate level.” In saying that NBA executives view college basketball as a de facto “minor league,” Phillips challenged the NCAA’s response up to this point, asking “Why have we accepted that? Why have we just allowed that to happen without any pushback?” Finishing his excoriation of the current status quo, Phillips called the prospect of many one-and-doners attending classes for only a semester “crazy” and “absurd,” before issuing a call to action by saying the NCAA as “got to fix it [the current rule].”
I found Phillips’ remarks noteworthy for two reasons. First, it’s all too rare to see a respected and influential member of any community, and Phillips certainly qualifies as both in the world of college athletics, use such definitive and, frankly, provocative language in the face of such a complex issue. Would anyone have been surprised had Phillips instead offered up bland, generalized sound bites into the microphone immediately before spouting of all the difficulties he faced in effectuating change? Phillips opted, instead, to address the issue head-on, and possibly ruffle some feathers at 645 Fifth Avenue in the process.
This led, quite naturally, to the second reaction I immediately had Tuesday afternoon. Phillips’ impassioned speech was notably bereft of actual solutions or immediate next steps. His remarks focused exclusively on the problem, and only tangentially addressed any possible answers by noting that “everything should be on the table. Nothing’s sacred. Let’s do the right thing for our student-athletes.” It’s absolutely the right sentiment, but hardly the stuff seismic change is made of. And rest assured that this is not a criticism of Phillips on my part, but a recognition of how truly difficult and multi-layered the eventual “solution” here will ultimately be.
I’m all for the NBA solving this issue on its own by addressing the one-and-done issue that they forced in 2005 by adopting a minimum-age requirement in their collective bargaining agreement. While this particular collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021, the NBA or the union may opt out in 2017, providing a glimmer of hope that they could renegotiate the minimum-age requirement in two years time. As the current state of affairs really isn’t causing any real heartburn for the NBA, however it’s forced protection for some of its less risk-averse power brokers, after all, I wouldn’t hold my breath on this happening, at least of its own volition.
While I don’t purport to have an easy answer, mainly because there isn’t one, I do have opinions on what paths we shouldn’t head down. I’ve long been on record in these entries as saying that I have no real interest in spending my weekends watching de facto mercenaries with little-to-zero connection to a university compete. My primary concern is the same as Phillips’ stated rationale: what’s best for the student-athlete. In that regard, I don’t favor adopting the “college baseball” rule as a viable solution for college basketball, yet I seem to see this one keep seeing pop up as some sort of panacea. To say nothing of the disparities in the established minor league systems between the NBA and MLB, I fail to see how this solution – ready-made and convenient as it may be – advances the cause of the student-athlete. While the college basketball fan in me would have loved to have seen Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis compete another two years (assuming they would not have just gone pro immediately), I fail to see how two more compulsory years at the college level would have been in their best interests, either developmentally or financially. In that regard, I much prefer the NBA’s pre-2005 “come one, come all” approach, and would favor a return to allowing high-school students with no interest in college to apply immediately.
I’m not in favor of the “year of readiness” proposal advocated by the Big Ten’s Jim Delaney, either, mainly because I find it to be overly-inclusive and not narrowly-tailored to the specific issue at hand. Simply put, it’s a broad sword, not a scalpel. Making policy that restricts the abilities of the thousands of student-athletes that show up in their first year ready to compete both athletically and academically based on the dozen or so that potentially undercut the integrity of the entire operation by only attending classes for six months strikes me as unimaginative and a tad unfair. And none of these reasons even begin to address the likelihood of this year-long forced sabbatical actually coming to fruition, which I personally believe has all the likelihood of Isiah Thomas being named the president of a WNBA franchise (last week, that line would have been humorous, instead of mystifying and almost unbelievably ironic).
For anyone that follows college athletics closely, the rising tides of change seem to be cresting a bit in recent months, and Jim Phillips’ comments this week do nothing to stem their advance. It’s seemingly a matter of “when” radical, wholesale changes in college athletics as we know it will occur, as opposed to “if.” While I’m comfortable that a qualified and seemingly honorable fellow like Jim Phillips is one of the stewards at this critical moment, I sure would love a little in the way of details, too.
Feature image via The Daily Northwestern
Jeff Troxclair is an executive, lawyer, and life-long college sports fan. He is a graduate of both NC State University and the University of Notre Dame, and is a hopelessly optimistic Wolfpack and Irish fan. Jeff is originally from New Orleans, LA, but has lived for extended periods of time in both Raleigh, NC, and Chicago, IL. He currently resides in Oakland, CA, with his wife and daughter. Having seen the New Orleans Saints actually win a Super Bowl, he is now convinced that we live in a world where no sports-related achievement is impossible.