You Can’t Fix Basketball If You Can’t Admit You’re the Problem

Last week, the Commission on College Basketball (or the Rice Commission) released its long-awaited report. Some industry participants expressed considerable surprise at the Commission’s lack of vision and its willingness to dodge the fundamental problems with college basketball. Though the report contained a few positive ideas, generally it was many recommendations the NCAA wants others to do, while the recommendation for the NCAA members themselves was to exert more control – extending even into youth basketball, and to enforce that control with even more punishment for the supposed “sin” of engaging in healthy commercial transactions, all in the name of what the NCAA calls “amateurism” or the “collegiate model.”

The Historical Basketball League (the HBL) is a new college basketball league that thinks very differently about the sport. As a league, we are fundamentally in favor of our own version of the “collegiate model” which is that athletes who attend college should not have to forfeit their economic rights to acquire an education. To the HBL, “amateurism” is not some revered, noble tradition, but the conduct of an economic cartel that extracts wealth from young, primarily African-American men, and tells them they should be happy they are receiving an education at the cost of their economic rights. In the HBL’s version of the collegiate model, athletes will be able to exercise the right to earn while they learn, and thus to participate fully in the American way of life, free from the harmful imposition of monopoly power on a major segment of the economy.

The Rice Commission was a missed opportunity for the NCAA schools to reform themselves. Instead, they chose to double down on archaic rhetoric and old ideas all the while pointing the finger at everyone except the NCAA. At the HBL, we are not so naive as to be surprised that the NCAA was unwilling to call itself out as the primary culprit in the “corruption” of college sports, but we were somewhat surprised that their recommendation were so backwards-looking that if they were to be adopted, college athletes and society at large would be worse off than they are today.  The good news is that this abdication of the NCAA’s traditional leadership role, is a classic opportunity for a progressive competitor to enter the market. Given the NCAA’s unwillingness to adapt to the 21st century, the HBL plans to fill the gap and create a just system that recognizes athletes as full citizens and thus actually “turn the course of college basketball in the right direction.”

The “One and Done” Rule

As the Rice Commission was quick to point out, the so-called “one and done” rule is the result of a collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and NBPA, and to this end, it is arrogant for other bodies to tell those two organizations what to do. Omitted from the Rice Commission’s analysis, however, was the NCAA’s role in creating the legal framework in which collectively bargained rules like “one and done” came about when the NCAA asked the Second Circuit in Clarett v. NCAA to maintain rules like one-and-done for the health of college sports. While we applaud the NCAA’s willingness to change its position, it should not be absolved of blame for its role in creating the current situation.

At the HBL, we do not wish to appropriate the NBA’s and NBPA’s right to craft draft-age eligibility rules, and we are prepared to work with whatever system is in place. Historically speaking, while there will be great players that make the jump straight from high school (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, etc.), the mismatch between the value of college athletes and the NCAA’s maximum-allowed scholarship extends far deeper than the dozen or so athletes affected by the one-and-done rule.[1] Even in the absence of one and done, the remainder of high school graduates will still face a choice: sacrifice their economic rights to develop their skills in college or sacrifice their education for a premature jump to the NBA, an overseas league, or the G-League.[2] That false choice is too high of a price to ask of these gifted Americans.

Fortunately, a better option will soon exist so that basketball players can opt for the best of both worlds – the right to an education and the right to earn their economic worth. From Day 1, HBL athletes will earn salaries (paid directly by the HBL) ranging from $50,000 to $100,000, while also receiving league-provided, fully guaranteed, five-year scholarships – and that is just the start. Players in the HBL will have their full rights restored - the right to work with an agent, sign endorsement agreements, and monetize their social media accounts to further supplement their income. They will also receive medical benefits and insurance policies (including disability and loss of value) to protect themselves in the event of injuries, while also receiving other basic benefits an employee generally receives.

Regardless of what the NBA and NBPA ultimately decide, the HBL will continue to focus on the value proposition we can offer to college basketball players. We will not make the mistake of trying to tell Adam Silver and Michelle Roberts how they should do their jobs.

Freshman Ineligibility is Bad for College Sports

It is truly shameful that the Rice Commission would even suggest the return of freshman ineligibility. Similarly shameful is NCAA president Mark Emmert’s statement that if you want to get paid, you have no business being in college.[3] No other sports leagues and no other profession requires this of a college student. Why should college basketball be different? However, if the NCAA insists on telling great athletes who want to practice their craft professionally while also experiencing all of the joys and benefits of the freshman experience that they “have no place” at a Power 5 campus, the HBL will happily take advantage of the NCAA’s ceding the field to our league.

Furthermore, we think even one year of participation in the HBL will be of great service to our athletes. The HBL will offer the opportunity for our athletes to develop holistically into well-rounded people. Our Academic Advisory Board will work to develop a curriculum that our first-year players will complete during the summer season, so that they are better prepared to handle life as professionals, whether on the court or off. In the HBL, no longer will money be treated as something dirty to be avoided; instead the HBL will focus on the education and preparation of our athletes for all future careers, including providing the sort of financial literacy that comes from coursework paired with hands-on participation in marketing, investment, and even retirement planning through 401Ks.

Shoe Companies are Not Evil

While the Rice Commission’s report harps on the corrupt and allegedly “illegal” practices of shoe companies in college basketball, it ignores the fact that underground economies only thrive when the market is denied the ability to function properly.  Every under-the-table payment we see in college sports occurs because standard “above the table” business practices have been demonized. Regardless of the “one and done” rule, college basketball players have considerable value; hundreds (perhaps thousands) would earn more than the current NCAA maximum if allowed. The root cause of this underground economy is the NCAA’s insistence that willing transactions between internationally respected shoe companies and talented, hard-working Americans are somehow immoral. They are not, and once such commerce is restored to its proper place in the economy, most if not all of the problems plaguing college basketball will become a thing of the past.

The NCAA receives over $1 billion dollars per year, primarily from licensing the television/stream rights for the “March Madness” Tournament, a tournament that never features more than 884 scholarship athletes.[4] Even at an average value of $50,000 annually (a high estimate), the payment to the NCAA’s “labor force” is only $44.2 million. Name a company that would turn down the opportunity to make $1 billion at the cost of $44.2 million. We know the rhetoric – that something like 95% of all tournament money goes to support “student-athletes” but we also know the reality – the vast majority of that 95% is paid to others – to coaches who can earn $10 million (and for their country club fees, private jets, and car stipends), to administrators that increasingly earn over $1 million, and even to construction firms that build excessive locker rooms and elaborate palaces for schools to segregate their athletes off from the rest of the campus.

This is an artificially inflated market. Schools take in money from shoe companies that would prefer to work directly with athletes (but cannot because of NCAA rules) and then use that money to compete indirectly for the services of athletes, offering them fleeting luxury rather than the ability to generate future investment capital or a nest egg for the future. Once shoe companies begin working with the HBL, the market will equilibrate – coaches and administrators will be paid more reasonable rates and athletes will receive their value directly, and in far more responsible forms -- salaries rather than perks, investment opportunities rather than pizza parties.

Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour all see the value in being involved in AAU and college basketball or else they wouldn’t be so involved in AAU and college basketball. If these companies want to have direct access to athletes earlier, especially if the NCAA tries to block this contact, the HBL is ready to step into that market gap. In the HBL’s fairer collegiate model, which sees no benefit to “amateurism,” shoe companies won’t risk jail time for their employees (or FBI raids of their businesses) while bringing an underground economy above the table and growing the overall pie they share with HBL schools and HBL athletes. We welcome a no-fraud world in which payments are just normal business transactions and entrepreneurial hustle is valued as much among young basketball athletes as it is among the young tech start-up crowd.

...Neither are AAU Coaches

In any other field, if a community member helped half a dozen minority individuals from low socio-economic background get into colleges, they would be hailed as heroes. Instead, the incumbent powers in college sports call the AAU community “dirty” and use words like “scum” and ”thugs” to describe people the HBL considers community leaders.

The HBL plans to work closely with AAU team organizers and coaches, recognizing the positive role they play in helping young men reach college and receive scholarships. These leaders should play a role in helping their athletes choose the best opportunity for their careers – academic and athletic – and we look forward to a fully collaborative partnership with the non-scholastic basketball world, in contrast with the Rice Commission’s recommendation that the NBA and the NCAA boycott this system with the goal of destroying it.

The Real Problem is Amateurism. The Solution is the HBL.

The obvious issue with the Commission’s report is its failure to address the inadequacies of “amateurism” itself. Beyond a cursory mention that compensation for college basketball players isn’t the answer, the Commission failed to address the economic exploitation inherently involved with “amateurism.”  Instead, it went on a separate tangent to increase the control of the NCAA over not only college basketball, but youth basketball as a whole. The Commission went so far as to demand financial transparency from tournament organizers and shoe companies. Just a final reminder, the NCAA’s rules are not laws, and the NCAA is not a government entity with the authority to act in the manner that the Commission has suggested.

This is the problem with asking the NCAA or its hand-picked Commission to recommend solutions to problems the NCAA members’ conduct has created; it’s hard to ask people whose livelihood depends on a problem persisting to recommend their own demise. Unlike the NCAA, the HBL is not about earning monopoly profits off the backs of athletes whose families often live below the poverty line.[5] Rather than starting with an assumption that athletes’ rights are subordinate to colleges’ preferences,  the HBL respects the rights of athletes to earn their full worth and to work towards a college degree at the same time.  While the NCAA will continue to enforce antiquated rules in hopes of ending the underground economy they have created, we at the HBL will focus on a holistic solution, a new vision of college basketball, where the league, the teams, and the athletes work as partners, sharing in successes (and the revenues that flow from those success).  The fairer collegiate model is the better collegiate model, one that ends the economic and academic exploitation imposed on the industry by the NCAA. Come join us on this mission to save college sports from the NCAA.

For more information, contact press@hbleague.com and visit hbleague.com.

[1] From 1995-2005, an average of 3.55 high school players were selected in the NBA Draft annually. At its peak in 2005, 9 high school players were selected, though only 3 in the first round. In 2015, only 33% of second rounders played even one minute in their rookie season, while all but one first rounder received playing time.

[2] As a reminder, athletes in the G-League face a league-imposed maximum salary of $35,000.

[3] Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports.” See https://theundefeated.com/features/the-ncaa-must-face-up-to-its-own-corruption-and-fix-its-big-time-sports-problem/.

[4] The NCAA allows only 13 scholarships per team, which results in no more than 884 athletes across 68 teams.

[5] Between 40-60% of all Power 5 football and basketball athletes qualify for Pell Grants, and “most Pell grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000.” See https://www.scholarships.com/financial-aid/grants/federal-grants/.