Like most other fans of college sports, particularly the money sports of football and mens' basketball, I have grown accustomed to the sporadic scandals that seemingly pop up every year. For instance
- Assistant coach so-and-so gave impermissible benefits to such-and-such player.
- Already happened. The guilty party got a slap on the wrist. Move along.
- A booster of program X gave internships to several prominent athletes but had them do no work.
- Already happened. That national championship Program X won, yeah, we'll pretend it never happened. Oh, and you, Program X, you lose a scholarship. Move along.
- Several football players at a major university got free shoes from a store in the mall. That is an impermissible benefit.
- Already happened. Slap on the wrist, effectively. Fans started calling the university Free Shoes U. Move along.
But when one of my students told me about the latest scandal in major college basketball involving the arrests of coaches by the FBI, my first thought was "Whoa. The FBI arrested coaches. This isn't a slap on the wrist by any means. This is serious."
Michael McCann, writing at Sports Illustrated, has an excellent take on some of the legal angles in this current corruption case, and he speculates on what the various parties involved might do as the case winds through the legal system. But as for the genesis of this scandal, and most every other scandal that comes to mind, Mike hits the nail on the head: it didn't have to happen.
If the NCAA had adopted a system where players were compensated for their labor and compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness, perhaps all or some of these “under the table" payments would not have occurred. We'll never know. But some will ask.
Therein lies the problem. Football and mens' basketball generate mountains of cash that run entire athletic departments (i.e. support the livelihoods of numerous people), but the athletes are effectively not compensated anywhere near the amount generated by their programs. Yes, they get grants in aid (scholarships) which are incredibly valuable to some players. But they can have no value whatsoever to some players, particularly those with a future in an elite pro sport league.
In college basketball, one 5-star recruit can be the difference between a run in the NCAA tournament and not making the tournament at all. Talk about a valuable resource.
Elite athletic talent is a scarce resource and it must be rationed. It's not a question of "does it need to be rationed?", it's a question of how. If it's not rationed through a simple and efficient price system (i.e. by paying players some kind of salary more or less in line with their worth to their respective school - paying them "over the table", as it were), then some other rationing system must be used. One of the alternatives is payment "under the table": i.e. corruption.