The full extent of the investigation remains unclear, and no sanctions have yet been handed out, but Yahoo’s report indicates that agents are slipping cash to recruits across the country, and that the federal government is cracking down on the practice. Already, four assistant coaches have been arrested as a result of the FBI probe, which appears far from finished. “When this all comes out,” a source told Yahoo’s Pete Thamel in February, “Hall of Fame coaches should be scared, lottery picks won’t be eligible to play, and almost half of the 16 teams the NCAA showed on [a March Madness preview bracket that aired in February] should worry about their appearance being vacated.”
The FBI’s reported findings thus have produced two distinct reactions from college-sports observers. Some, expectedly, have been aghast at the scope of basketball’s underbelly, arguing that payments to high-schoolers harm those players while creating a competitive imbalance between schools that can afford to pay up and ones that can’t. But a growing number of people have noted the revenue the NCAA generates ($1.1 billion in 2017), considered the obvious monetary value that basketball stars create for their schools, and simply shrugged at the cash changing hands. Why, the latter group has wondered, should anyone be outraged at athletes being paid a fraction of their value?
Had this FBI investigation come along a decade ago, the NCAA would have likely sanctioned its way out of the scandal. But as public opinion turns steadily against college-sports amateurism, with more fans than ever supporting athletes being paid, the governing body faces growing pressure to try something new. The NCAA president, Mark Emmert, has already promised “significant, structural changes” before the start of next season. What form those changes take, and whom they’re designed to benefit, will resonate for many Marches to come.
Typically, when the NCAA determines that players have received “improper benefits,” it punishes all involved. Depending on the specifics of the infraction, athletes can lose eligibility; coaches can be barred from the sideline by show-cause penalties; and schools can be stripped of scholarships and even previous victories.
If the NCAA treats violations uncovered by the FBI as it has treated rule-breaking in the past, it’ll investigate each alleged infraction and declare ineligible active players who accepted illicit payments. Schools found complicit in funneling cash to athletes would face severe sanctions. Some programs would fire their coaches to clean their hands of the scandal, as Louisville did when it axed Hall of Famer Rick Pitino last fall. The NCAA could wind up imposing the most dramatic suite of penalties college sports have ever seen.
Such a crackdown would show schools, agents, and athletes that the NCAA values amateurism as highly as ever. But while most fans might have previously applauded that approach, many have now become skeptical. A recent poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe college athletes should be compensated when their names and likenesses are used in video games or to sell merchandise. Additionally, 38 percent (significantly more than in previous polling) think players should reap a portion of athletic-department revenues. That helps explain why popular sentiment has felt different in the wake of the NCAA’s latest scandal. On television, online, and at dinner tables, college-sports observers have wondered not only how a black market developed, but also whether it’s such a bad thing. As the Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer wrote this month, “It’s disingenuous to lament how dirty money … is ruining college basketball without showing concern about how much the NCAA is profiting under the veil of amateurism.”