While feds get tough on recruiting scandal, NCAA forms a committee

Everything we need to know about the state of college basketball was made clear in two news items that popped up Wednesday within two hours of each other.

The first: A federal grand jury has subpoenaed Oklahoma State, asking for documents and communications regarding “actual or potential NCAA rules violations” within the Cowboys basketball program. It is the next extension of the federal corruption investigation that resulted in the arrest of 10 individuals late last month. It is another indication that the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office are using the considerable powers at their disposal to put a full-court press on the sport.

The second: In response to the rippling scandal, the NCAA announced that it has done what it does best. It has formed a committee. That committee will start meeting in November and report back in April.

One group is doing work. Another is talking about eventually perhaps getting around to doing work, perpetuating the belief that inertia is the defining characteristic of the NCAA.

This is a major element of why college hoops has become the cesspool it is: Hamstrung by the established limits of its investigative power and handcuffed by bureaucracy, the NCAA has failed to combat a culture of corruption that threatens the credibility of its biggest moneymaker. It has failed to adequately enforce its own rules. It has failed to create a deterrent that is sufficient to scare off the cheaters.

And every crook and con man affiliated with college basketball knew it.

Shoe companies engaged in bidding wars to deliver players to the schools they outfit. Agents and financial advisers stalked prospects in their teens, making under-the-table payments in return for signing them as clients when they turned pro. Coaches knew all about it, and dozens – possibly hundreds – were involved in the scams. The clean ones fumed privately but wouldn’t blow the whistle.

And it’s been that way for 20 years. Maybe longer. It was an open secret.

“Every head coach knows exactly – EXACTLY – to the dollar, what is going on,” said a source who was an active participant in the underground economy of the sport for many years. “The comical part to me is hearing head coaches say they’re shocked, when they know it’s going on.”

The NCAA has formed a committee to try to discuss how to clean up college basketball. (AP)

That’s why the system needs to be blown up and rebuilt, no matter the collateral damage. It’s why the federal investigation is so important, because it can do what the NCAA cannot.

That’s not to say that the NCAA isn’t intent on trying. Belatedly, perhaps, but the governing body of college athletics has at least put out a call to action.

“I think it’s shaken everyone to their core,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “This is a system in bad need of repair and overhaul. Let’s get after it.”

Emmert couldn’t comment on whether the NCAA enforcement action is a response to the federal probe, other than to say that the association is at least partially in standby mode right now to avoid interference. Eventually – and nobody knows when – this will transition more fully into an NCAA investigative matter.

In the meantime, Emmert said, the commission he has empaneled will be an important NCAA tool.

“We needed a panel of individuals who care deeply about higher education and college basketball, but are not actively involved in the sport,” Emmert said. “We want them to study the issues and not just nibble around the edges, but make fundamental, substantive change.”

This is a panel of accomplished people within higher education, college athletics and basketball. Its membership includes: chair Condoleezza Rice; Emmert himself; the chairman of USA Basketball (Martin Dempsey); four current or former university presidents; three current or former athletic directors; two former Final Four coaches (Mike Montgomery and John Thompson III); and two whip-smart former star players (David Robinson and Grant Hill).

Here’s what the committee lacks: Anyone from the netherworld the NCAA is trying to understand and curtail. Sometimes, as the saying goes, it takes a thief to catch a thief.

And, ultimately, it is a panel of high-powered people who will sit in a boardroom and discuss a lot of things. Among the big-picture topics will be the roles of shoe companies in college sports, the corrosive influence of non-scholastic basketball and the NBA’s harmful one-and-done rule.

Then there will be this: A discussion about NCAA enforcement, and how to make it work. A great many current and former members of that division are among the most conscientious, hard-working and idealistic people I’ve met in college sports – but they’ve been powerless to stop this particularly virulent strain of corruption.

So, can an NCAA committee do something to change that, after so many have made a limited impact on the state of college sports over the years?

“I understand why people would be cynical about that,” Emmert said. “But look at the allegations – this is pretty disgusting stuff. People within our membership are motivated to make changes. My belief is that this is going to be an action committee, and not just another committee that produces a report that sits on a shelf.”

Emmert acknowledged that this 2017-18 college basketball season will play out under a cloud of scandal and suspicion. The credibility of the game is in question. The paranoia among coaches is at an all-time high, as we wait to see how many schools are ensnared by subpoenas, video surveillance, wiretaps and other investigative tools at the feds’ disposal.

When I asked one assistant coach recently what people within his profession were saying about the scandal, his response was telling: “Nobody wants to talk on the phone anymore, so I don’t know.”

In other words, every coach is afraid his phone is bugged.

Ultimately, this could be the way college basketball is scared straight. But that likely is going to be more the work of the federal government than the NCAA itself, which has always been better at forming committees than catching cheaters.

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