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NBA Should Open Draft To High Schoolers, NCAA Commission On College Basketball Says

Brian Bowen recently declared for the NBA draft, despite not having played a game in college due to eligibility problems. An NCAA commission is recommending the NBA allow talented high school players to be drafted. Bowen is seen here playing for La Lumiere School in January 2017.
Gregory Payan

An NCAA commission is calling on the NBA to reopen its draft to athletes who are 18 and have not attended college, citing problems with the "one-and-done" system that sees elite players jump to the pros after their freshman year.

Created last fall after a federal investigation put an exclamation point on a growing list of crises and conflicting priorities in the sport, the Commission on College Basketball issued its recommendations on Wednesday.

Elite high school players who have a shot at the NBA and don't have plans to get a college degree shouldn't be forced to attend universities, the commission said in the 53-page report.

Removing "one-and-done" players from the NCAA would also remove a temptation for sports apparel companies, agents, coaches and others who want to profit from their talents, the panel said.

The list of people who benefit from the athletes' work also includes the NCAA itself. The organization recently reported more than $1 billion in total revenue — much of it from lucrative TV contracts for the annual men's basketball tournament. The commission did not take up the idea of paying athletes for the marketing of their names, images and likeness, citing ongoing legal disputes over that issue.

In response to the NCAA commission's suggestion to change draft eligibility rules, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association issued a joint statement saying they "will continue to assess them in order to promote the best interests of players and the game."

Another change would stop players from being penalized just for testing their value in the professional market. The NCAA's rules state that a player's college career is over if they hire an agent. But the commission advised that if a player declares for the draft but doesn't sign a contract, they should remain eligible at the college level.

"The current sad state of college basketball did not appear overnight and it will not be repaired quickly," wrote Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State who led the commission and summarized its recommendations.

In addition to changing how elite athletes are treated, the commission also wants the NCAA to do far more to help athletes who leave college and later want to return and finish their degrees. Only 1.2 percent of all college basketball players go on to play in the NBA — a league where the average career is shorter than five years.

"We recommend that the NCAA immediately establish a substantial fund," Rice wrote, "and commit to paying for the degree completion of student-athletes with athletic scholarships who leave member institutions after progress of at least two years towards a degree."

Rice depicted a college basketball system in which the "vast majority" of people play by the rules. But she also said that the commission repeatedly heard that when it comes to rules being broken, "Everyone knew what was going on."

It was "like watching a circular firing squad," Rice said of how blame and responsibility for the sport's problems constantly shifted during conversations with coaches, athletic directors, school presidents, the NCAA's staff, apparel companies, agents, parents and athletes.

The Independent Commission on College Basketball was established last October, weeks after federal agents arrested four college basketball coaches and six other people in connection with a bribery and fraud case that involved sports management agents and a top executive at Adidas.

Those arrests also implicated the University of Louisville's men's basketball program. The school put its star head coach Rick Pitino on leave before firing him, the athletic director and two assistant coaches. Pitino has denied knowing about payments to any recruits.

Federal documents in the Louisville fraud case referred to efforts to lure a coveted recruit, Brian Bowen — a player whose complicated story is emblematic of college basketball's current state.

One of the most highly touted players of his recruiting class, Bowen had committed to play for Pitino at Louisville — but then came the federal case, just before the start of last year's college basketball season. The federal complaint alleged that Bowen's family — not the athlete himself — agreed to take money from Adidas in exchange for him committing to Louisville.

Bowen has said he wasn't aware of the alleged bribery plot, and that he only found out about it when the federal case emerged.

The University of Louisville initially suspended Bowen. The school later said it would honor his scholarship — but that he would never play for the basketball team, as member station WFPL reported.

With a pro career as his clear priority, Bowen transferred to the University of South Carolina in January and started a mandatory waiting period before is able to play in his first college game, perhaps sometime next season. Last week, Bowen declared for the NBA draft — but he did so without hiring an agent, leaving him a chance to play in college. In the meantime, as The State newspaper reports, Bowen will participate in the NBA Combine for potential draftees and await an NCAA decision on reinstating his eligibility.

Earlier this year, the NCAA affirmed its decision to strip the University of Louisville of its 2013 national championship in men's basketball over the string of ethical and eligibility problems.

It is time, Rice said in her summary of the commission's findings, for everyone involved in college basketball "to accept their culpability in getting us to where we are today."

The NBA and NBPA said in response to the report, "We also share the Commission's concern with the current state of youth basketball."

While there may be plenty of blame to go around, Rice said that several of the commission's recommendations target "the actual root cause of the problem — governance and leadership lapses among many who were charged with protecting the best interests of collegiate athletes."

Instead of focusing on the goal of helping athletes get a college education and degree, she said, they have "given in to the incentives to 'win at all cost.' "

Saying that "many" people at NCAA colleges see the rewards of breaking the rules as worth the risk of being penalized, the commission suggested five changes to toughen the NCAA's penalty system:

1. Increase the competition penalties for Level I violations to allow a five-year postseason ban, including the NCAA tournament.

2. Increase the financial penalties for Level I violations to allow loss of all revenue sharing in post-season play, including revenue from the NCAA tournament.

3. Increase the penalties for a show-cause order to allow bans of more than one season.

4. Increase the restrictions on head coaches to allow bans of more than one season

5. Increase the penalties for recruiting visit violations to allow full-year visit bans.

Another change would target coaches who are repeat offenders — and the schools who hire them. Saying that colleges currently "pay no significant price" for hiring past offenders, the commission said that in some cases, a school that hires a coach whose program breaks the rules again could face up to a five-year ban on postseason play.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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