The FBI investigation that led to the arrest of 10 people in college basketball on Tuesday showed a dark underside of the sport.
According to court documents, several assistant coaches, financial advisers, and managers had been accepting or paying bribes to have coaches exert influence over prospects to join a school and, down the line, use those same financial advisers.
The FBI’s investigation is ongoing and more colleges, coaches, advisers, agents, and brands figure to be involved as the case expands.
To many, the root of this issue is the NCAA’s amateurism laws that state college athletes cannot be paid. While the schools, coaches, and brands all make money off of the game, keeping the athletes unpaid results in a black-market race for talented prospects who can further enrich those involved in college basketball.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a noted advocate for paying college athletes, argued:
“When have you ever heard of a coach being steered to an agent? When have you ever heard of bribes to get a coach to accept a job? When have you ever heard of a bribe to get an athletic director to switch schools? You don’t hear such things because those people are allowed to be paid in a free market. It is an aboveboard business, and it works in an orderly fashion. There are contracts with contract remedies. That pesky free market works incredibly well and efficiently for everyone else; it is foolish to assert that it would not work just as well for college athletes.”
Bilas told Business Insider in 2016: “There’s no argument that this is a multibillion-dollar business that is professional in every way except how the athletes are treated. The only student in college that is subject to a wage restriction is an athlete. That’s one thing that should be remedied immediately.”
Chris Spatola, a former college coach and player, compared the situation to Prohibition. Making alcohol illegal did not eliminate alcohol, Spatola argued; it created a black market. Spatola explained to CBS’s Kent Sterling that he’s not an advocate for “pay for play” but believes athletes should be able to make money in other ways:
“But why can’t you allow these kids to go out and enter into third-party deals? With a shoe company, for example, or an agent. Or why can’t Johnny Manziel go out and hold an autograph signing where he is paid for that? What you do, Kent, is you bring the money into the light of day. What the NCAA is doing right now is forcing the money underground. And you’re going to have these people who are waiting to invest in these elite talents that are worth a lot of money, and they will find ways, corruptive ways, to make money off those elite talents.”
As Bilas noted, the NCAA is a multibillion dollar business that makes money off of the athletes in the form of TV deals, jersey, and more. Paying the athletes may not only be fair, but it could help end the corruption in the sport.
New York Knicks forward Michael Beasley also argued that college athletes should be paid. Bribery and corruption in college basketball is often motivated by schools, agents, and brands’ desires to land big-time players who can benefit from the exposure. Beasley, who went to Kansas State and entered the NBA in 2008, argued that players already do that:
“I went to a small school in Manhattan, Kansas, that nobody heard of, and now that city of Manhattan has multiplied by five, six. Should I be compensated?” Beasley said on Wednesday. “They sold my jerseys … Do I think most of the players should be compensated? Yes. Because most of us don’t make it to this level. A lot of us don’t make it to the professional level, let alone the NBA. So I do think guys should be getting paid. The NCAA is making billions.”
These ideas remain controversial and complicated. Opponents of paying college athletes believe that athletes receiving scholarships, free education, nutritional care, and sometimes stipends, is compensation enough. As Bilas noted, “Players are certainly not mistreated, but they are exploited.”
On the players’ ends, their handlers, be it parents or someone else, have figured out the way to exploit that by getting paid for their services under the table. Until that’s no longer necessary, such underground deals may keep happening.