Minor March Madness

The Solution to the NCAA Student Athlete Salary Struggle

One could be forgiven for thinking that most current debates represent more the madness of King George than the sanity of civilized society. Doubtless whoever you’re currently vetoing or voting for has represented the former English Monarch of 1788 more than once. Presidential Candidates and College Coaches alternate between bouts of confusion and borderline violent outbursts of temper in the maddest of months.

What joy was to be found then at the New York Public Library last month; the old one you remember from Ghostbusters, just like the old cast you remember from the 1980’s film. Hosted prior to the opening tip off of the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament the topic of debate was “The Price to Play: A Discussion About the NCAA and Its Student Athletes.”

A suitably imposing topic held in an equally imposing building first opened in 1911 and handily only a mere four blocks from my apartment. Close enough to ensure I wasn’t out on assignment at any rate. Something my editor is always glad to hear. But as I ascended the steps outside, past Patience and Fortitude the Lions, I knew if this wasn’t to degenerate into a Fox News debate, both qualities would be required in abundance.

The topic of the NCAA will spark different controversies in any reader who hasn’t switched off already. Nonprofit status to Coach’s salaries. Sexual Assault to Paper Courses. With such a task at hand, the line of conversation would be driven along the lines of wages for student athletes. To further narrow the line of inquiry for moderator, Jami Floyd who, if there’s any justice should be coming to a network news debate near you in the future, the debate would consist of only two participants.

Taking the Bernie Sanders approach of, “the need for a revolution” was Joe Nocera, the respected New York Times sports writer and award-winning author, whose latest offering titled “Indentured: The Epic Scandal of the NCAA” would form the basis for the dialogue. Given that the NCAA is a $13 billion business that rivals the NFL, he demands that it’s only fair for the labor force within such a large entertainment organization to profit from it in a more tangible form that classes, room and board.

Taking the Clinton approach to of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was Ekow Yankah. The equally highly regarded professor of law whose article for the New Yorker magazine outlined his stance in no uncertain terms. That the premise of payment for student athletes would ultimately disrupt the sanctity of the collegiate sporting experience for participants, coaches, administrators, alumni and fans.

Not surprisingly the bulk of the debate focused on the showcase sports of Men’s Basketball and American Football given that therein lies the majority of the revenue generation and public interest. Which in the interests of Title IX and other much needed equality provisions within collegiate sport, wasn’t to say other topics such as the income generating sports subsidizing other scholarship sports such as lacrosse and golf weren’t covered. Division III was also addressed in part which gave a nod to the largest of the NCAA classifications, where scholarships aren’t offered for athletics. But in order to get to the meat of the issue the conversation remained at the top.

Surprisingly though, the topic that held my interest and that became the post-debate chat over dinner wasn’t any of the traditional subjects that you’d expect. Rather, is a subject like the reform of the NCAA capable of being solved by Americans and given time, will it even be needed? An odd swerve away from the hard and fast road that the debaters plotted for the hundred strong audience and one that requires some clarification.

The secondary late evening debate in question, over Vietnamese Sandwiches in neighboring Bryant Park involved a Welsh Phys Ed Teacher of eight years and an English Basketball Coach of fifteen years. Both now living happily in New York City for the past three years and with a hearty investment in sporting education on both sides of the pond.

One item from the second floor Trustees Room in the NYPL’s Main Branch which prompted this debate, was the likelihood of paid college football and basketball becoming nothing more than a minor league. Baseball and hockey both established their own minor league system well ahead of the NCAA. Then joined the collegiate system as an option for high school graduates in search of an education. Leaving the other two major sports to habitually rely on colleges and universities to incubate their future talent beyond their mandatory age of entry. Which currently for the NBA is after a minimum of one year beyond high school graduation at 19 years old.

The success or lack thereof that the NBA D League is experiencing has been well documented. Current player salaries are in the region of those tabled for potential NCAA incomes in the future. With the summer league roster spot, training camp invites and ten day contract payments acting as the equivalent of tuition, bed and board for arguments sake. So the model is up and running with limited success in comparison to the NCAA money making machine. It’s been touched on before, that it’s only a matter of time or a cross word between the NCAA and NBA, before the Association offers up a true alternative for high schoolers. But something in the debate prompted a change of stance towards the domestic solution to the NCAA actually being an international one.

The Oxford University educated Ekow offered up a comparison to back his argument which had its roots in the world of European Soccer. The mere mentioning of a sport which many Division I programs don’t even charge for tickets made me double take. Expressing his interest in the world’s game, it bordered on the shocking that he went on to imply that the European model for football scholarships and academy players is more cut throat than the NCAA. Fledgling soccer players are discarded annually by the top clubs from the age of eight years old. Leaving them with little in the way of educational or professional sporting options.

Nothing is closer to the truth of established talent farms for the world’s top clubs such as Manchester United and City, culling the herd every summer to make way for new uncovered gems or to ensure the cream rises to the top. The David Beckhams of the world come along all too infrequently as with any sport in any country. But to say it’s a one and done system simply isn’t the case. In the same manner, the recent meteoric rise of Jamie Vardy from the eighth tier of English Football to the Premier League’s leading scorer shows that the same can work in reverse.

Passed over by the top flight teams during his formative years, Jamie settled for a youth contract with second tier Sheffield Wednesday and was promptly release at 16. Despite the stated notion that his sporting career would now be over, he signed with the local eighth tier side, Stockbridge Park Steels. A team who formed in the year before Jamie’s birth to benefit local steel workers. Five years later he finally made his way from the reserve team to the starting eleven and really began to repay his club wage of thirty pounds a week.

Wait. More evidence to the contrary that his career was over. But chasing the dream is something Americans do on a daily basis. Vardy must have channeled his inner Yank as he battled for yet another five years. Eventually he set another record when he transferred to his current club in the Football League for one million pounds. A record amount for a non-league player. Ironically that same club, Leicester City priced him at a similar amount to his initial wage to ward off more established clubs at this year’s transfer deadline. Only this time there were a few more zeros at the end. Thirty million pounds worth of zeros to be precise. So the soccer system can work both ways in a professional performance sense. But the subject of this debate was education’s role in the student athlete. Given the miniscule percentage chance of turning pro in basketball, it’s a topic that needs to be covered.

So we revert to the days of yore from European soccer in line with our debater’s suggestion to the contrary. The 1980’s offered similar post education worries for high school leavers in the UK who entered the workforce at 16 or 17 years old. Scant numbers of jobs and even less prospects for youngsters without an extended education. The Youth Training Scheme (YTS) was a hallmark program by the Conservative Government to ensure teenagers had the chance for subsidized employment with local businesses. Inclined to jump on this bandwagon prior to the recent commercialization of their sport, even professional football clubs offered places for talented school leavers to join their reserve teams and replace the former apprenticeship scheme.

A similar weekly wage to Vardy was offered and players after practice were required to scrub the boots of first team players and clean the toilets of their changing rooms. In many cases it was the only time the apprentice players were permitted to enter the professional player’s sacred space. Things improved in 1998 when the 1,600 trainees at the 92 clubs offering YTS opportunities joined the Football Scholarship Program which extended contracts from two years to three. While only 15% of trainees who enter at 16 are still involved in professional football at the age of 21, it’s still a comparatively large number.

To better accommodate the needs of the 85% however, the training program was then overseen by the Footballers’ Further Education and Vocational Training Society. Most government projects habitually change logos and letterheads with every parliamentary change. So the ongoing metamorphosis from the Modern Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence to the Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence continued. While education was still mentioned in partnership with professional athletic development. That’s not to say it’s perfect. Far from it. Profit making skills academies now partner with high schools in the UK to deliver elite coaching for performance athletes. The school willingly markets itself accordingly. Attracting larger numbers of talented athletes to receive high end coaching often leads to a schools improved academic and financial stability. With some examples also working in the opposite direction. Once the sporting offer is removed, especially in all boys schools the standards and popularity of that institution have been known to fall.

The point is that the NCAA’s answer may lie elsewhere in the world. If that’s the case, Americans may not be best positioned to solve the student athlete payment problem. Due in part to their built in bias. Not seeing the wood for the trees if you will.

On a daily basis the faultless Duke graduate Charlie Rose confounds and amuses me in equal amounts on the CBS show This Morning. At or around 7:30am his statement that, “The news will be back in the morning, only on CBS This Morning” always makes the grammatical Englishman in me wince. Yet more to the point, amusement kicks in only minutes later when he kicks off the show’s second half hour as they pan to the world map for, “Headlines from around the world”. Inevitably the CBS definition of, “around the world” is different to mine. If pins were used in the map, the good old USA would be as worn out as a dart board’s bullseye. One typical day this week the world news involved the US house speaker running for election in Washington DC, a pepper spray incident by a Texan cop, coastal drilling off the shore of the south eastern American coast and a water scandal in New Jersey. Positively inclusive and worldly, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Now my grandmother always taught me that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Despite her laughing at the majority of my snide comments, she’s correct. The reason we ambled down that path wasn’t a knock on American society or journalism. More that the solution to the NCAA salary struggle isn’t to do with developing a minor league as suggested. Nor is it connected to the Ed O Bannon case or any future litigation of that nature. The NBA has its own successful minor league system already. It’s just not in the continental USA. It’s in the rest of the basketball playing world.

Hank Biasatti who was born in Italy and raised in Canada became the NBA’s first international player in 1946. Following the 1992 Olympic Games and the game changing Dream Team, the number of foreign players in the NBA began to rise. In the 1991/92 season 23 international players from 18 countries were rostered in the Association. At the start of this season, that number has ballooned to 100 players from 37 countries. That fourfold increase in just 25 years can lead to the assumption that in many cases foreign players are skipping the once mandatory NCAA experience and are staying home.

The international game is better suited now to prepare young players for the transition to the NBA game. FIBA has altered rules such as shot clocks, lane dimensions and the three point line to tie itself closer to the Association. Even with the differences that remain, it’s a world closer than the NCAA rules that baby those players with an eye on the future. Even those who don’t reach the heights of the NBA, struggle to transition to FIBA’s wider key and deeper arc when first playing abroad. The hardest time to keep a job in sports is when you first get one. The NCAA fails in that regard to prepare its athletes for their future life.

But maybe that’s why the public adores the madness of March. Because the game they’re watching is closer and more familiar to the courts on which they played.  A deeper connection than one simply based on alumni loyalty and misty eyed memories of campus life. An association the NCAA is keen not to break, despite its recent ruling alterations.

Whoever suggests that Europe or China is too far away to be noticed has never seen the passport on an NBA executive. Those who say the splashy numbers won’t transfer from a slower international pace of the Euroleague never witnessed the transition of Pau Gasol. Like Jamie Vardy, playing for his hometown team (Barcelona) in just 25 minutes a game, he offered up apparently pedestrian numbers of 12ppg and 5rpg. Transfer that a year later into his NBA Rookie of the Year totals of almost 18ppg and 9rpg on a Memphis team much less dominant than the Catalans. You see the transition is almost seamless if you look below the surface. International basketball players typically get signed and paid from a similar age to their footballing counterparts. With a club linked education thrown in along with room and expenses. But their preparation in competition against their own age group and also senior men for those able, offers an advantage college simply cannot.

The NBA talked long and hard about expansion. Yet while European expansion is drifting further away, it’s not too much to think that each franchise could partner with a Euroleague team to aid player development in another 25 years. The somewhat checkered history of high schoolers taking the low road to the highest level has come along in fits and starts. Lloyd Swee’Pea Daniels’ path to the NBA in the 1990’s was anything but traditional. Not one many parents were willing to replicate for their kids. Toiling for some seven years in the US minor leagues and all the way down under to New Zealand for a spell.

Brandon Jennings brought the subject back to the American conscious in 2009 as the 10th pick in the draft. The year prior he set a standard as the first high schooler to opt for a professional $1.65M contract in Italy with Lottomatica Roma. Which was further sweetened by the $2M under armor sponsorship deal. Not a bad haul for Euroleague averages of 7ppg on 39%FG in 20mpg. While he didn’t transfer those averages into a Rookie of the Year, he did set a rookie scoring record with his 55 point game against the Warriors. Not too shabby compared to student athletes struggling to find money for post-game meals and opting out of a “valuable” education after the same single season.

Predictably we stumble into the present day with Emmanuel Mudiay of the Denver Nuggets. Having been born in Zaire, he attended US high school and was seen by some as the second best recruit in his class. Opting for the Chinese Basketball League over Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs, he pocketed $1.2M with the Guangdong Southern Tigers. His injury hit season offered by promising averages of 18ppg, 6rpg and 6apg. Bloated possibly by the lower standard of the CBA compared to its European counterparts. Regardless his seventh place lottery selection was comparable to Jennings and doubtless has the notion of prep to pro more relevant in the minds of high schoolers than ever.

Given the rise of international players in the NBA and the game across the globe, the prep to pro option may well end up solving the NCAA salary debate. And so it should. The options are obviously there for those wishing to take the plunge on growing their game abroad. You couldn’t blame the NCAA for not budging on their stance of the student athlete. The options are there for those wanting an alternative to an unmanageable partial education and no financial rewards. Want a piece of the $13 billion? Tough. You play for what you know and what we offer. Or you take your chances elsewhere.

Finding and justifying working with a developmental coach in a nurturing professional club is no different to the rhetoric spewed by college coaches to recruit high schoolers and their parents. Fortune favors the brave and it really is a brave new world out there. A notion not as mad as you’d once thought a generation ago. America was built by those who packed up their belongings and headed west into the unknown.

Well kids, unlike your forefathers, you can now head in any direction and into the well-known. Even if your country of choice isn’t on the CBS news. It’s a decision no different to anyone graduating high school. Start your career early and get a head start on your industry. Or settle for the greater education and the debt that comes with it. Personal, Intellectual and Financial. There’s security in neither and madness awaits in both. The price to play always has been and always will be, purely one of choice. The American Dream is out there, only now waiting beyond its shores. Dream on America.

Graham Wilson

Graham was a national NBA writer for the Hoops Inquirer, who can't help dabbling with International Basketball from time to time.
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