Q+A: When the NCAA Oversteps

In the beginning of August, the NCAA sent a memo outlining new requirements for agents who would potentially work with men’s basketball players exploring whether to declare eligibility for the NBA draft. Among the requirements was agents must have a bachelor’s degree. Shortly after the memo was released, backlash started. Lebron James tweeted #TheRichPaulRule – in reference to his agent and friend, Rich Paul, who did not attend college.

On August 12, Rich Paul authored an op-ed for The Athletic calling out the NCAA’s new requirements. About six hours after the op-ed was published, the NCAA announced they would amend the requirements: agents without a bachelor’s degree would have to be in good standing with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) for at least three years.

Sports Management professor, Ellen J. Staurowsky, EdD, who has researched exploitation of college athletes and their rights, spoke with the Drexel News Blog to offer insight about the NCAA’s initial announcement, their reaction to critical feedback and its impact on men’s basketball.

What prompted the NCAA to create these requirements for agents?

In the aftermath of federal indictments of an athletic shoe and apparel company executive, several college men’s basketball assistant coaches, runners, and agents connected to efforts deemed to have violated bribery laws – by subverting NCAA amateurism rules that bar outright compensation of athletes in September of 2017 – NCAA president Mark Emmert discussed a crisis of confidence in those running college sport.  

A poll initiated by the NCAA at that time revealed that 79 percent of all Americans believed that universities sponsoring big-time athletic programs put money ahead of the interests of college athletes; 69 percent indicated that the universities were part of the problem rather than the solution; and 51 percent believed that the NCAA was part of the problem and not part of the solution. 

Responding to that criticism and the perception that the lucrative business of college basketball was corrupt, the NCAA charged a Commission on College Basketball to develop recommendations to reform the industry. One of the outcomes of the Commission’s work was the adoption of new rules that opened up an avenue for select players who wished to explore their prospects to move to the professional ranks to hire agents while preserving their opportunity to remain eligible to return to the college game. The NCAA then adopted rules to govern the certification of agents for men’s college basketball players. 

Why have the NCAA’s agent certification rules been so controversial?

Initially, the NCAA’s agent certification rules included a list of experience and education prerequisites and an application process that included a background check, a certification exam administered by the NCAA, and fees ($250 to apply; $1,250 annual certification fee). The window of time for men’s basketball player agents to apply for NCAA certification was set between August 5 and September 30, 2019. When first reported by CBS Sports Reporter Jon Rothstein, the list of prerequisites included a controversial requirement that agents hold a bachelor’s degree. 

Quickly named the “Rich Paul Rule” after the chief executive officer and founder of the Klutch Sports Group and agent for NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, Draymond Green and others, the rule was perceived as intentionally crafted to prevent some of the most knowledgeable and innovative thinkers in the game from representing college athletes, most specifically Rich Paul. 

Why did the NCAA reverse course so quickly?

While the NCAA defended its actions by citing that they had researched agent standards established by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the NBPA, it could not overcome the hurdle that while the NBPA requires a bachelor’s degree for some of its agents, it provides a waiver of that requirement.  And Rich Paul had been certified by and in good standing with the NBPA for many years. Within a week, and just hours after publication of his op-ed in The Athletic where he questioned the motive behind the rule, the NCAA reversed course. 

In his op-ed, Paul questioned whether the NCAA was sending a message about his work with Darius Bazley, a player who first committed to Syracuse University but eventually opted out of playing in college and trained for a year before entering the NBA Draft, or “… because they know there are more and more people like me fighting for their chance and challenging this antiquated system.”

He also pointed out that “NCAA executives are once again preventing young people from less prestigious backgrounds, and often people of color, from working in the system they continue to control.”

Considering the NCAA is not known to be responsive to critics (for example, the Fair Pay to Play Act currently being considered in California, which cites your research, has received mostly pushback from the NCAA), what are your thoughts on the NCAA reversing course on this rule after Rich Paul’s op-ed was published?

In the end, the NCAA simply could not defend its position. It was crafting agent rules as part of the machinery that regulates the movement of men’s basketball players between big-time college basketball programs and the NBA. Given that the NBPA rules allowed for agents to be certified without bachelor’s degrees, the argument as articulated by the NCAA that “although some can and have been successful without a college degree, as a higher education organization, the NCAA values a college education and continues to emphasize the importance of earning a degree” simply rang hollow.

There was a disconnect between the requirement and the point of certification. As Rich Paul so eloquently observed, “Does anyone really believe a four-year degree is what separates an ethical person from a con artist?”

What does this controversy reveal about the NCAA?

As much as the “Rich Paul Rule” was problematic, what is more troubling about the way in which this NCAA agent certification process is being handled is the fact that the real issue continues to be wholly ignored. The real question here is under what authority is the NCAA asserting jurisdiction over the matter of certification of agents serving men’s basketball players?  Unlike the NBPA, where NBA players are members of an organization representing labor, men’s college basketball players are not members of the NCAA, nor is the NCAA a union.

The NCAA continues to intrude on matters that should be handled by an independent players’ association that represents the interests of the players and gives them an opportunity to collectively bargain. That is what the NBPA’s relationship is with the NBA. That is what the NFLPA’s relationship is with the NFL. The injustice here is that college men’s basketball players do not have an advocate at the table to negotiate for them. What they get instead is this kind of arrangement where modest changes are made only when the NCAA is called out and there is enough force to bear or public reputational harm at stake for the NCAA to reverse course. 

Interestingly, Rich Paul wrote in his op-ed that, “Unfair policy is introduced incrementally so people accept it because it only affects a small group. Then the unfair policy quietly evolves into institutional policy.”

Make no mistake about what this is. While the NCAA has walked back the Rich Paul Rule, NCAA officials continue to maintain control over men’s basketball players in the absence of a players’ association to fight for them. As a result, the NCAA should not lament public perception that it, along with its member schools, put the business ahead of the players and that institutionally the NCAA and its members are the problem, and not the solution. That is exactly what their actions and the regulatory structure predicts. 

Media interested in an interview with Ellen Staurowsky, should contact Annie Korp at 215-571-4244 or amk522@drexel.edu.