Impact Player

Football places Vanderbilt's Oren Burks in position to tackle society's pressing questions

Story by Rachel Stark
Photos by Jamie Schwaberow

The news struck with such concussive force and fear that, over a year later, many athletics directors remember exactly where they were when they heard it.

Many of them were in Washington, D.C., where an annual meeting of athletics directors from the 129 Football Bowl Subdivision schools was starting that day. They had traveled there for two days of events, including the College Sports Congressional Gala, a celebratory event where leaders of college sports would mingle with congressional figures, presidential administration officials and heads of industry. The athletics directors, who together make up an organization called LEAD1, would follow that reception with their first Congress Day. There, they planned to meet with congressional delegations that represent the schools’ communities and build bridges with Washington leadership.

Many of the athletics directors had just checked into the Mandarin Oriental Hotel when news broke that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York was holding a news conference. The FBI, it announced, had been investigating potential fraud and corruption in college basketball. Among the findings: Four college coaches, all from schools represented at LEAD1, were named in the investigation. Also, the head of global marketing for Adidas, James Gatto, was accused of funneling $100,000 to a recruit to ensure he would sign with a certain school and, when he eventually turned professional, with Adidas.

Within minutes, the talk of galas and congressional elbow-rubbing was replaced with anxious conversations. Faces turned from friends to phones as they searched for any scraps of information about the news — and about any legal exposure to their own programs. Did their coaches have relationships they didn’t know about? Could their schools be at risk in ways they didn’t understand? “It was like a bombshell that was like, ‘Whoa! What’s going on?’” says Martin Jarmond, athletics director at Boston College. “We didn’t know what schools, but we knew a handful of assistant coaches were involved in payments.”

Jarmond also remembers the sense of resignation among the assembled athletics directors — the notion that this news was shocking, but not surprising. “If you’ve been around the game,” he says, “you’ve heard these rumors.

“What caught my attention was the strong statement that the FBI made in their involvement. They called a press conference and all that,” Jarmond continues. “Think about how many times the FBI calls a press conference to talk about an investigation. I can’t remember the last time that they did that. And they did that with college athletics.”

That day was only 13 months ago. It may not be remembered as the day college basketball lost its innocence, but instead recalled as the day the leaders of college sports realized the innocence had been lost.

The anxiety the investigation caused helped turn panic into progress on a scale college sports has rarely seen.

Beginning in the spring, elite student-athletes considering a pro future will have more access to agents than ever before. The NCAA, NBA, National Basketball Players Association and USA Basketball have agreed to work together on a youth development system with revolutionary potential. Changes to enforcement and infractions processes have created incentives to cooperate with investigations and negotiate resolutions. And if it becomes necessary, an independent structure is being created to provide more robust options for investigating and penalizing the small number of complex cases that involve college sports’ worst actors.

The decisions are considered nothing short of historic. And many leaders of the working groups that crafted the legislation proudly describe the change the same way.

“It was,” says Blake James, Miami (Florida) athletics director and chair of the Division I Council, “a great step.”
A step.

The changes, no question, are historic. They were done at an unprecedented pace. But NCAA leaders agree: They’re just a step.

In fact, when asked to place the progress on a scale from 1 to 10 — between the starting point and a final solution — coaches and athletics directors put the reform process at a 3, maybe a 4. There’s so much work left to finish.

The changes are impressive and needed, they say. But questions still need to be answered. Complicated processes are still being determined as the new rules are implemented. Many changes are contingent on the buy-in of other organizations. Others will need future evaluation, and perhaps modification, to ensure they’re satisfying their crafters’ intent. In a stark shift of approach, the NCAA — often knocked for its glacial pace of evolution — enacted significant change at an urgent rate without shackling itself to perfection. The result is a significant restructuring of many of college sports’ traditional firewalls by leaders willing to view the work as an ongoing process rather than a single, decisive action.

“It was a big step,” James says. “It was a much-needed step. But this isn’t the end.”

In fact, it can’t be the end. And that’s not because the world in which college basketball exists has changed. It’s because college basketball has a role to play in changing that world.

Before the FBI investigation, college basketball could allow itself to operate relatively independent from the pressures of professional and youth basketball. Rules restricted student-athletes’ involvement in the NBA draft and their access to agents at the expense of their collegiate eligibility, and constricted the process of gathering information on their professional potential.

But as the money on the professional side has inflated — the NBA’s media rights agreement that took effect in 2016 nearly tripled broadcast revenue, with up to 51 percent going to players — the temptation to ignore those restrictions grew, coaches and athletics directors say. With only one year of college ball separating elite players from a pro future, agents and apparel companies became emboldened to reach across the only barrier — the NBA and National Basketball Players Association’s collectively bargained age requirement, which prevents players from entering the NBA draft until they are 19 years old and a year removed from high school — and start conversations with youth stars who might be only a year away from cashing in.

In the middle were college coaches who stood to benefit from having talent steered their way by friendly business arrangements. With the FBI still investigating, just how deep those compromised relationships go remains a mystery.

That culture of backroom dealing was precisely what the Commission on College Basketball sought to break up. Led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the commission was formed to analyze the problems plaguing the sport and propose solutions. In its final report, the commission didn’t point fingers at college basketball’s corrupted coaches, the NBA’s one-and-done rule, or youth basketball’s development structure alone. It pointed at everything. It saw weaknesses in youth development, challenges with the recruiting environment, issues with the NBA’s age limit, and a lack of potency in investigating and penalizing wrongdoers.

The commission recommended changes that held accountable all the major groups involved in American basketball — from the NCAA to the NBA to USA Basketball — and scripted a fix that perhaps none of those groups could have influenced on their own.

“The Rice commission basically stepped up and slapped everybody on the back of the head in a kind and gentle way and said, ‘Get your stuff together,’” says Phil Martelli, head coach at Saint Joseph’s and a member of the Division I Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee. “All of the stakeholders in the game of basketball were put on notice: Make improvements because it is a great game, and it went off the track a little bit. … There’s no entity that had the ability to make the sweeping changes that were suggested, recommended, demanded by the Rice commission.”

Coaches and athletics directors agree that collaboration was essential. But it also made the commission’s directives more complicated, requiring more time to implement. Some of the recommendations would take years to put in place.

A few areas fall fully within the NCAA’s purview, such as its enforcement and infractions processes, which have increased their emphasis on encouraging cooperation and negotiating resolutions. The changes also have established new deterrents to discourage the worst offenders by establishing an independent adjudicative process to tackle the most complex cases, and by doubling down on potential penalties, raising the risks for wrongdoers — and even their athletics directors and school presidents.

But other recent changes will go into effect only after third-party groups take action. Consider the new rule allowing current and prospective student-athletes who go undrafted to return to school and retain their eligibility. It will be a significant advancement in providing elite players a fair opportunity to explore options while retaining the safety net of their collegiate eligibility. Current student-athletes will have access to agents beginning this spring if they request an assessment from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee. But the changes to allow them to return to school if they go undrafted, and other changes to permit prospective student-athletes to retain an agent, won’t go into effect until after the NBA and NBPA make related changes to their collective bargaining agreement. Those groups have expressed an openness to making that change, but when it happens and how quickly it’s implemented are ultimately out of the NCAA’s hands.

A similar challenge exists for a new allowance to identify certain prospective men’s basketball players as “elite” and grant them additional flexibility, such as the ability to be represented by an agent and retain their collegiate eligibility. But the definition of “elite” is still being determined. No one is quite sure of the best answer, but the solution is certain to involve groups outside the NCAA.

The questions present challenges, but college sports leaders believe the dialogue that has started with the NBA, NBPA and USA Basketball, among other potential partners, ultimately will benefit the overall game by tying one another’s interests to a collaborative model. In late August, the four groups announced an unprecedented agreement that will expand USA Basketball’s Junior National Team to 80 high school players, provide them health and wellness training from the NBA, and assist in other developmental programs to prepare them for higher levels of competition.

That step is believed to lay an essential foundation for eliminating the one-and-done rule, possibly as early as 2021 or 2022, when the first classes of the new program would be set to graduate. It was an example of the collaboration that college sports leaders believe is essential to the game’s future.

“I think we’re trying to preserve the game of basketball and have it be one that people look at as a leader in the sports world,” says Jean Lenti Ponsetto, athletics director at DePaul and vice chair of the Division I Council. “I think we have an obligation to preserve it at the highest level. … It’s in all of our best interests.”

It hasn’t taken long for word of the changes to spread, and for interest to rise.

The calls come in consistently each week to the NCAA national office’s call center. One is a mother, interested to know when her son can sign with an agent and what it might mean for his eligibility.

The line rings again. This time it’s an agent. He wants to know how he can get certified by the NCAA.

Another call, this time from an Amateur Athletic Union coach interested in getting an event certified.

They’re challenging questions because many of the answers still aren’t clear. Whenever NCAA governance leaders pass legislative changes, the implementation period that follows can present its own unique trials. Policies and processes have to be set to allow the new rules — just black-and-white words on paper — to function within life’s grays. The process can be knotty even when the legislation is not historic in scale.

And that’s the challenge of the months ahead. Current and prospective college athletes, their parents, coaches, agents, administrators — they’ve all heard about the Commission on College Basketball’s recommendations. They know about the new rules that passed. And they expect they are already functioning. But what they don’t know is how much work will go into implementing the new rules, some of which will require whole systems to be developed before they can function.

Take agent certification as just one example. On the surface, it can look simple: With student-athletes getting increased access to agents, a certification program can help provide those athletes with some assurance of integrity. But what criteria will be used? What will the certification process look like? What technological infrastructure will be built to house the information? How will it be enforced?

A lot remains to be figured out, and Brad Hostetter, associate commissioner for compliance and governance at the Atlantic Coast Conference and co-chair of the Agents and Advisors Working Group, says the group is conservatively targeting 2020 for implementation.

“We’re still in the infancy stages of getting that built out,” Hostetter says. “I use that as an example of, yeah, we still have a long way to go.”

That’s the work of just one of the eight working groups, too. And even as those groups continue determining the details, Lenti Ponsetto believes other NCAA sports might soon request allowances similar to those granted to men’s basketball players.

In the past, such monumental changes, which have no assured outcomes, would be a sure recipe for legislative defeat. NCAA leaders’ reputations for conservative action — avoiding legislative changes if they were not comfortable every loophole was closed, every unintended outcome considered, every possible alternative identified — has been well-earned, coaches and athletics directors say.

But they say the changes in men’s basketball have shown a different side, one in which solutions took precedence over debates. This time, college sports leaders became comfortable with change as an evolution requiring oversight, re-evaluation and, potentially, corrective changes in the years to come.

This time, the possibility of legislative revisions became an acceptable part of the process. Perfection, as they say, was treated as the enemy of completion.

“I think this is an unbelievable opportunity,” says Creighton Athletics Director Bruce Rasmussen, whose tenure as chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee ended in August. “But if you want opportunity without exposure, you’re going to wait a long time. That’s been the frustration sometimes. … We try to make this perfect. We look at the exposures, and we try to eliminate the exposures, or at least minimize the exposures. We miss out on opportunities.”

Martelli hears the questions from other coaches. With 351 men’s basketball staffs in Division I alone, there are at least 351 different questions, he jokes.

He knows not everyone will be satisfied with the current changes. A year from now, he says, we may still be discussing revisions to the rules. There are bound to be bumps and bruises during implementation. But that’s OK.

Because Martelli noticed something else changed, besides rules, after the FBI investigation was announced. People he talked to weren’t just thinking about how the investigation impacted their program. They were talking about how it affected basketball.

Perhaps the progress up to now only registers a 3 on that 10-point scale measuring where the game needs to go. But if everyone is thinking about the game, Martelli says, instead of their own little world, college basketball will be healthier.

“We are all charged, I believe, with being part of the solution,” Martelli says. “Because in some way, shape or form, we were all part of the problem.”