On Sunday the NCAA announced the standings for its annual tournament. I watched bits and pieces of the announcement and the analysis that followed on ESPN. Virtually all of the analysts complained about the lack of competitiveness among the teams in this year's tournament. They used that lack of competitiveness to criticize the NCAA's idea to expand the field of the tournament to 96 teams. They argued that a weak field of 64 teams would become a weaker still field of 96 teams.
In parallel, the NBA has struggled for years with players leaving college too early (or not attending at all) to chase riches in the pros. Recently the NBA instituted a rule requiring a player to be at least 19 years old to enter the draft. As a result of this rule certain players, such as Greg Oden and O.J. Mayo, played the minimum one-year of college. Rather than joining the NBA as immature multi-millionaire 18 year-olds they joined as immature multimillionaire 19 year-olds.
The NBA's change in policy had unintended consequences. First, the league has been rightly criticized for the arbitrary rule. NBA teams should be the judge of which players are ready to play, not the commissioner. Furthermore, one-year of college doesn't necessarily make a player more prepared to handle the pressure of the NBA. Lebron James had no college, and has had no controversies. Carmelo Anthony played a year at Syracuse, but had many hiccups at the start of his NBA career before reaching his full potential.
The second unintended consequence has benefited the NCAA. Greg Oden played one year for Ohio State, and helped take the team to the National Championship in the process. Oden's single year in college helped Ohio State and the NCAA immensely. Oden would have gone straight to the pros for sure. In the process he would have denied Ohio State the best possible team, and the NCAA would have lost one of its most intriguing stories of recent years.
The NBA needs more players who benefit from being in college. The NCAA needs more talented basketball players to stay in school longer to improve its product, especially if the tournament is expanded. The answer to both problems is for the NCAA to pay its college athletes - all of them, by the way, not just the basketball players, even though they're the focus of this post.
The system for paying the players would be simple. Players would be awarded a certain portion of the revenues they generate for the colleges in merchandising, gate receipts and television rights. If the Universities can afford to pay coaches millions then they can certainly afford to give the players a few hundred thousand. In addition, similar to rules that exist in baseball, players could receive a bonus that they most certainly have earned from their performance in the NCAA tournament, which is one of the most watched televised sports events in America. The money would not be made available to the students while they are in school. Rather, the money should be set aside for the students year-after-year, in a trust of some sort that is only made available to the students after they leave college, either for the pros of graduation. Finally, a bonus should be made available to those students who graduate.
This system solves a number of legitimate problems that plague both the NCAA and the NBA (and to a lesser extent the NFL):
1) It's just. These players sacrifice their bodies and make millions for their schools. They are entitled to a cut of the money.
2) For players such as Oden, who wanted to stay in college, but left due to financial pressures from his family, the option of staying in college no longer comes with a large financial opportunity cost. His family would be cared for either way. In general, players would be free to stay in college as long as they like without fear of losing draft value, or sacrificing millions.
3) Recruiting scandals would vanish. Penalties could be assessed if a player or school violated rules. No one would do this anymore, not with a few million in post-collegiate earnings on the line.
4) Players would receive a true incentive to graduate, something that doesn't exist at the moment. This lack of incentive harms players who are on the cusp of making the pros.
The net effect would be the NCAA would see more players stay in school, many choosing to graduate. This would improve the product because once again fans could see teams develop over time, rather than watching a good team dissolve after only one or two seasons. It would also fell many of the criticisms the NCAA faces. In turn, the NBA would see more players coming into the draft with 3 or 4 years of college under their belts, something that would improve both their games and their futures after basketball.
As the tournament unfolds this year, its important to remember the real reason teams are not as competitive this season, and why so many players will jump to the pros when perhaps they shouldn't.