A modest proposal for putting the college sports genie back in the bottle

College sports is a mess.

 I think most people will agree with that statement. However, the ideas I am about to put forth I suspect few people will endorse. Especially coaches, administrators, sports writers and other pundits. And I’m sure they will all say it is too late to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle anyway.

They are probably right. But I can dream, can’t I?

Let’s start with NIL (“name, image, and likeness,” and refers to college athletes’ ability to profit off themselves).

A recent story in espn.com stated that 80 percent of sports officials and players surveyed said “NIL represents a black-market pay-for-pay system that is being used to secure recruits and transfers.” Note the use of the word “black-market.” We all know the system is already being abused and will only continue to be so with increasing frequency in the future.

Now, everyone is saying the NCAA is to blame for not building in safeguards into the system before it was put into place. I, for one, am tired  of the NCAA being the scapegoat for all that is wrong with college sports. To be sure, they are guilty on many counts.  Their rulings have often been painstakingly slow arbitrarily inconsistent over the years.

But the NCAA acquiesced to all the governmental agencies, player organizations, lawyers, agents and pundits who complained that is was grossly unfair that that players weren’t paid while they were effectively generating millions of dollars for the NCAA and colleges. And how those dollars were used by those beneficiaries is a legitimate area of inquiry and reform.

But is NIL really fair? If the argument is that these athletes put in so many hours devoted to their sport that they need some sort of subsistence allowance, I’m all in. But don’t college swimmers, lacrosse players, fencers, baseball and softball players, etc. face the same financial challenges? Why should only those players in major revenue generating sports be the ones who get compensation?

And there’s another important consideration. In addition to getting free tuition and board often worth several hundred thousand dollars, players in revenue generating sports also get to showcase their talents in college, thus making them more marketable in professional careers.

Case in point, South Bend native Blake Wesley. If not for being able to showcase his remarkable skills as a Notre Dame basketball player, would he have been an NBA lottery pick after just one year? I doubt it.

Which brings me to the subject of “one and dones.” 

Not every athlete is suited for college any more than every non-athlete is. There should be a structure in place so those athletes who are not qualified or interested in college could go directly from high school into some sort of development league program supported by professional teams. That seems to work for baseball and some other sports. Why not football and basketball?

Do we really believe those players who are solely interested in being “one and dones” are fully vested in going to classes and being serious students during that one year of college? I think not. And as for the argument that the college game would suffer without these elite performers, I would submit that college football and basketball would be every bit as popular without them. 

Then there’s the transfer portal.

For the sake of relative brevity, I won’t get into great detail about the absurdity of unrestricted use of the transfer portal. I understand that teenagers will make bad decisions about many things, including their choice of a college. They should be able to rectify those mistakes one time without being required to sit out a year. Same goes for those who chose a school because of the coach who recruited them — only to see that coach move on to another job (and more dollars).

So, I believe a hybrid between the old transfer rules and the new ones makes sense. Each athlete should be allowed to transfer once without penalty. If he or she is still dissatisfied, then it would be appropriate to require paying the price of sitting out for a year.

In conclusion, I will circle back to NCAA governance. College sports needs a single organization to enforce the rules and establish accountability for those individuals and institutions that break those rules. Maybe it continues to be in the form of a new and improved NCAA. Maybe it is a new entity. But there needs to be a unified governance structure.

Those who say the Power Five conferences (or Power Two now) should break off and establish their own governing authority are on a fool’s errand. Does anyone really trust the SEC or Big 10 to unilaterally create fair and effective rules? 

I do not.