Most of the FBI's recent probe into recruiting in college basketball should not come as a surprise to anyone.
If you believed that all high-level recruiting was clean, you are probably either an NCAA investigator or living under a sports rock. Third-party handlers and financial planners have tried to influence young hoopers for decades, and a lot of those people aren't just becoming close with high school players out of the goodness of their hearts. There's money to be made off of those amateurs, and adults want in. A talented high schooler is worth a heck of a lot more than a college scholarship, so, in today's structure of NCAA basketball, that value is going to schools. For sneaker companies, the incentive to lure teenage phenoms in by presenting them with, in some cases, six figure payouts, is worth millions of dollars down the line. For the schools and the corporations, it's a win-win. The schools get the players they covet, the corporations get a pledge for a future shoe deal, and the players make money.
Sounds like a solid system right?
Well, not quite.
The players getting the money they're ultimately worth is a good thing, in my opinion, but the way it's happening is not.
In its current iteration, NCAA basketball recruiting is slimy and secretive. It happens under-the-table and involves backroom deals. For young players, the nature of this process isn't ideal. Different people are pulling these youngsters in different directions, which is dangerous territory when the information isn't out in the open.
After the FBI's lengthy investigation uncovered several of these shady recruitments, the NCAA has a real opportunity to make meaningful change. Before the FBI got involved, the NCAA — which does not have the power to subpoena and wiretap, unlike the FBI — didn't really have any way to prove the major recruiting violations that have come to light this week. Obviously, not all programs recruit illegally, and it may only be a small minority of programs that break the rules. At this point, there's no way to know, though the FBI's investigation is ongoing. But what is clear is that a lot of programs haven't been doing what they're supposed to, which is cause enough for the NCAA to reexamine a system that needed a facelift anyway.
For one thing, the regulations need to be strictly enforced. As FBI Assistant Director William Sweetney said, the feds now have "the playbook" for how schools, sneaker companies, and financial planners collude — and even conspire — to bring in the nation's top players. Based on that statement alone, it would seem like it'd be tougher to get away with the same kind of transgressions. That means that coaches that haven't cheated in the past will be on a more equal playing field with the schools that have been paying top recruits, which is an overwhelming positive.
But even so, better policing how coaches and companies recruit talent doesn't solve the larger issue of amateurism in the NCAA. What the recent scandal proves is that the best high school players can command significant sums of money in an open market, which isn't a groundbreaking claim. We knew many recruits could make that kind of money, but we didn't have a concrete example to point to. With the FBI's claim that implies that five-star recruit Brian Bowen received upwards of $100,000 from Adidas to sign with the Adidas-sponsored Louisville, now we do.
The FBI made damning assertions about NCAA basketball, and discovered what may be college basketball's biggest scandal ever. It's a bad look all around, for the sneaker companies, the schools, the NCAA, and, of course, the coaches. And it's not over, either. Sweetney said that interviews were ongoing, so it seems almost certain that more schools will be implicated, and more programs will find themselves in a state of disarray. For all we know at this moment, most power five schools may have reason to worry. We just don't know a whole lot yet.
But the first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging you have one, and the NCAA can't do anything but that after the FBI exposed the "dark underbelly" that lies beneath the surface of a multi-billion dollar industry. From this report of bribery and misconduct could come the sweeping reforms that college basketball has needed for years.
Realistically, those changes probably aren't coming in the immediate future, but I still think we're closer to seeing them being enacted than we were before Tuesday.
That's a good thing.