The Trouble With The NCAA

Thomas BarbeeSenior Analyst IMay 13, 2008

I'm hardly an expert when it comes to this issue.

There weren't highlights of me playing ball in high school on the local news, much less on ESPN. Upon graduating high school, I wasn't sought after by every Division I school in the country with a scholarship in hand.

Finally, once I decided upon a school, there wasn't a press conference, and said school didn't expect large amounts of money to come in on my account—just the bills for tuition and books.

Despite that, I was able to observe, for a time, this phenomenon while attending the University of Illinois.

As a sophomore, our Illini basketball team rose to prominence as they made it all the way to the championship game before losing to the North Carolina Tarheels. Along the way, just about everyone remotely associated with the team became overnight super-celebrities.

While athletes on campus were already worshipped, it became very obvious that year how these guys, ranging in age from 18-22, became viewed as gods walking amongst us mere mortals.

Students would drop everything they were doing at the time to get a picture taken with said athlete, and if they didn't have a camera they would at least try to get an autograph—anything so that they can brag to their friends back at the dorm. The team received nightly exposure on both local and national sports stations, praising the team while fattening the schools pocketbook by garnering constant exposure.

As observed by many incidents that have occurred over the years at a vast number of schools, a good percentage of these "student-athletes" end up doing just enough to make the grade, thanks in large part to the help of the hundreds of tutors, "online classes," or having leisure studies as a major.

And last but not least, don't forget the groupies.

The point is that college, for the student-athlete, is the ultimate ego trip. If your head hasn't been inflated enough from being the best prep athlete in high school, college will certainly up the ante.

If the "problems" with celebrity culture were so prominent in a tiny college town like Champaign, it's hard to envision what it must be like in a place like Los Angeles, especially on such a storied campus as USC, where the spotlight always shines.

Picture it, the exposure, the women, the guaranteed money coming after your one year—it's no wonder the academics and morals fall to the wayside.

Of course, when those incidents do occur, the media and the NCAA are the first to jump all over it. Suddenly, guys like OJ Mayo become the poster boy of all that's wrong with the NCAA—when in reality, he's just an 18-year old kid that did what any other 18-year old kid would do if they were in his position and had his talents.

Furthermore, it's hypocritical for the NCAA to go after USC for bringing in a guy that every other team in the country wanted. If all of this had really happened while Mayo was in high school, the NCAA should have barred teams from even attempting to recruit him.

Cases like these, however, are bigger than the players or the schools involved, even if they involve arguably the best freshman in the country. They distract people from what is inherently wrong with both the NCAA and the NBA-instituted one-and-done requirement.

With the marketing revenue generated from forcing the talented high schoolers to enter at least one year of college, the NCAA has no incentive to try to convince the NBA to change the rule. Furthermore, with most of the top-tier players only coming to the NCAA to fulfill their requirement, they have no incentive to do anything other than look out for their own best interests.

With as much money as the school and NCAA make off of them for their efforts, why shouldn't they? It's painfully obvious even to the most hopeful fan that athletes get preferential treatment, so why does the NCAA waste resources to investigate a case such as this one?

It's simple. The NCAA doesn't want to look bad—not anymore than they do already. If it weren't for the fact that ESPN was able to dig up all this dirt on OJ Mayo, the investigation probably wouldn't have taken place.  The NCAA has to appear to be in control of the madness they created—a frenetic atmosphere where the top athletes are simply being groomed for the next level, both on and off the court.

I'm not insinuating that these players should be paid for participating in college sports—that would create another headache altogether. Rather, what I find disheartening is that while these young men are trying to just go on with their lives, they find themselves in the middle of a controversy that almost always does more harm than good.

While scummy coaches like Kelvin Samspon are able to bounce around the coaching ranks before eventually running out of destinations, entire seasons can be potentially erased and scholarships removed based on the actions of a select few.

So in the case of the OJ Mayo, what should the NCAA do? Honestly, the smart thing to do would be to slap USC's wrist and move on to the bigger fish that lie at the heart of this particular case. That is, eliminating the one-and-done rule, or forcing the kids to stay for all four years.

The former ruling seems to be the only likely case, as both the NBA and the NCAA have to be more responsible anyway. If general managers are willing to pay an 18-year-old millions of dollars, they should at least have the decency to protect their investment by ensuring that they're surrounded by a good group of guys so you don't have another Leon Smith on your hands.

In the case of the NCAA, they need to be realistic about things—they can't expect a guy like OJ Mayo to be completely detached from a world full of perks.

But like I said, I'm not an expert. Then again, the folks in the NCAA don't seem to be that bright either.