After 22 years as a college-basketball commentator for ESPN, Jay Bilas is now slogging through his busiest November yet. Finding himself far-flung during a month stacked with tournaments and traveling from Chicago to Maui—with maybe a night to recharge in his Charlotte-area home—is common practice by now. But the addition of the Phil Knight 80, a Thanksgiving tournament in Oregon that commemorates the Nike founder’s 80th birthday, has thrown Bilas’s carefully controlled schedule for a loop. “For me to do 12 games in basically seven days,” Bilas told me by phone last week, “is unprecedented.”
Such is the life of perhaps the most well-regarded and trusted individual in all of college basketball. With his voice honed over the decades into a reassuring timbre, Bilas effectively serves as the sport’s Walter Cronkite—a respected commentator unafraid to speak openly about an American institution beset by a fraught and ongoing debate about amateurism (and whether student-athletes should be paid), as well as a bribery scandal that has mushroomed into its most serious crisis in years. “The NCAA makes its own rules, and their rules are bad,” Bilas said during a panel discussion in Baltimore last month. “That’s been pointed out forever, and so for the people in charge, and specifically the president of the NCAA, to talk about some code of silence in college basketball that people weren’t telling them what was going on—they knew exactly what was going on.”
The commentator’s outspokenness isn’t surprising to those who’ve been following these concerns. “When Jay cares about something, he wants to try to help in any way he can,” said the University of Central Florida head coach Johnny Dawkins, who played with Bilas at Duke. “He doesn’t mind debating and having difficult discussions, and he has a talent to look at an issue … and then dissect it to suggest the necessary improvements.”
Standing a lean 6-foot-8 with a salt-and-pepper-speckled buzz cut, Bilas spent his formative years playing under coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, where he then served as an assistant following a brief playing career in Italy and then Spain. While he was coaching, Bilas was working toward his law degree. (He remains a licensed lawyer, though doesn’t practice much anymore.) Between his varied experiences as a player, coach, and lawyer, Bilas has thrived as someone who understands not only the Xs and Os of strategy, but also the promise and pitfalls that imbue collegiate athletics with its inherent drama.
It’s this credibility that helps him relate to fans, university administrators, coaches, and student-athletes alike—and it has made him a valuable voice on how college basketball needs to improve, from its governance of rules violations to player transfers to transitioning toward a future where players are paid a commensurate wage for their labor. Because of his stature, Bilas may be the person most capable of saving college basketball from itself. “I wasn’t hired to be a cheerleader—I was hired as a commentator,” he said. “When I say something, I’ve researched it, and thought about it, and I believe I am right.”
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This 2017–18 season, just two weeks old, should be triumphant for the NCAA. The sport is riding a rising wave of popularity, fueled by newcomers like Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton, and Mohamed Bamba, all of whom possess the kind of versatile “unicorn” skillset that is transforming the NBA. In all likelihood, each will leave for the pros after this season, but that hasn’t diminished the sport’s hype. There are also a dozen or so schools, including Michigan State, Villanova, and Kansas, that could realistically contend for the national championship in San Antonio next April. Last season’s title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga scored the third-best ratings since 2005, and the NCAA has a nearly $20 billion contract with CBS Sports and Turner that runs through 2032.
Yet college basketball’s credibility remains low. The same eligibility and transfer issues pop up before every season and range from head-scratching to ham-handed. In one case, the University of Houston’s Rob Gray was suspended one game for playing in a summer church league. Another involved Braxton Beverly, a guard who had enrolled in summer classes before transferring from Ohio State to North Carolina State and was told he’d need to sit out a year even though he’d never played or practiced with the Buckeyes. (The NCAA only reinstated Beverly once he hired a lawyer).
More stunningly, in September, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York blindsided the NCAA with charges alleging corruption, bribery, and wire fraud. The ripple effect was vast: Assistants at Arizona, Oklahoma State, Auburn, and the University of Southern California were arrested, each accused of accepting money to either pay players or “exert influence.” The arrests also included an executive from Adidas. At the University of Louisville alone, the investigation led to the firing of the athletics director (Tom Jurich), head coach (Hall of Famer Rick Pitino), and two assistant coaches, as well as the permanent ineligibility of Brian Bowen, that school’s top recruit and a player whom the federal complaint (and later reports) said accepted $100,000.
As far as scandals go, Bowen’s case is rather pedestrian, but the allegations laid bare the sport’s underbelly, in which money, gift cards, and other enticements are de rigueur to establishing a winning program. “There are a lot of gray areas within college basketball that can change,” said Nebraska’s head coach, Tim Miles. “This is how recruiting has been done, and there is no question that this ‘scandal’ has gotten the attention of lots of people.” That, according to Miles, is how someone like Bilas can help the NCAA maneuver such waters. “Since Jay’s voice has been pretty steady on issues like this for the past few years,” Miles said, “he has to play a critical role in the advancement of college basketball, as we are in a transformational period.”
“Common sense reigns when you are on the outside,” said the Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. “Jay points things out and makes people think. The NCAA is a large business making a lot of money and employing a lot of people, and Jay makes them very nervous.”
Asked about the federal corruption charges, Bilas demurred, arguing that the case is built on shaky ground. “I have been a trial lawyer for years, but I don’t see these as federal crimes,” he said. “No federal laws have been broken.”
But the investigation has exposed the fallibility of the NCAA’s core tenet—that “student-athletes” are equally defined by both sides of that term—and Bilas is willing to use his on-air platform (and nearly two million Twitter followers) to advocate for change. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the contradictions that exist within college sports,” Bilas said, “and my opinions seem especially germane now.”
He contends that there are common-sense solutions to the NCAA’s eligibility concerns, ones that don’t penalize players for simply trying to survive. “All of this results from how valuable these players are, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Bilas said. “While I don’t condone violating rules and laws, we need to change the rules to accurately reflect the current world. We used to fight over whether it was a violation for guys to eat a bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter! Why are so we so worried about all this stuff?”
This bluntness is a departure for Bilas, who largely stayed in his lane in the mid-1980s as a starter for the first Krzyzewski-coached Duke squad to play for a national title. An exception was the two seasons he served as a student representative on the NCAA’s Long-Range Planning Committee, but Bilas’s feedback was routinely dismissed. “Nobody wanted to hear it,” he said. “We spent a ton of time talking about where our next meeting was going to be.”
After three seasons as an assistant coach at Duke, Bilas left the sidelines behind to practice law. In 1995, he started calling games for ESPN on a part-time basis, but it wasn’t until after a decade or so that he felt emboldened enough to use broadcasts for something other than, as he described it, “criticizing players that make mistakes or coaches that are on the hot seat.”
Bilas felt there was more he could do to effect some kind of positive change. “Why would I stay away from the contradictions and hypocrisy of the NCAA’s policy when it is constantly in our face?” he said. “And as the money keeps growing, the contradictions are more stark. It’s maddening.”
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So, what reforms should college basketball embrace? For starters, Bilas suggests the NCAA allow—but not mandate—players to be paid. “There aren’t any positives to amateurism,” Bilas said. “If Adidas had given $100,000 to a 15-year-old tennis player or a college basketball player after the season ended and he turned pro, that’s good business. But if Adidas gives that same amount to a player still in school, that not only violates an NCAA rule and is now a federal crime? Where is the harm?” And while the NCAA has largely eliminated what Bilas deems to be “banana peels”—seemingly trivial transgressions that could slip up any athlete and derail a promising future—the organization still has work to do, as evinced by the confounding cases of Gray, Beverly, and many others.
In a sport often swayed by constantly evolving areas of legality, Bilas taking the mic often feels like a litigator arguing his most persuasive case. His arguments, stress-tested both on the air and social media, lay the groundwork for a future where players receive payments as well as health insurance and financial advice. But would the NCAA and its president Mark Emmert ever entertain Bilas’s proffers? Bilas confirmed to me that, as early as 2014, just as his public calls for change were gaining traction, the NCAA approached him about joining its Division I Committee on Infractions, the organization’s investigative force. Bilas’s charge? To help decide cases by applying the rules as they were written and interpreted to the facts, a duty he (and, he says, his bosses at ESPN) ultimately concluded was a clear conflict of interest.
Bilas turned down the NCAA’s offer. “The committee has strict confidentiality rules, so I wouldn’t have been able to comment on any cases before the committee,” he said. “I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out why I was offered a seat—so I wouldn’t be able to talk about those issues anymore.”
The commentator is under contract with ESPN through the 2022–23 season. But while Bilas isn’t naïve in thinking that there may not be substantial changes to the NCAA’s operating model by then, he remains optimistic that the sport is headed in the right direction. “The NCAA is trying to make the rules fit what they are doing on a commercial basis, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “There have to be some rules, but we can fix the overwhelming majority of what dogs the NCAA, so that it won’t keep embarrassing itself and its best people.”