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The NCAA’s Bold Attempt to Shake Up College Basketball Only Creates More Questions

Making sense of the groundbreaking new rules that will allow agents more above-board access to top prospects

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Pressure is mounting on every side of the NCAA’s current position as an American institution and a stronghold for the nobility of the student-athlete. On Wednesday, the organization went on the defensive … and carved out a moat. Facing ongoing FBI investigations into the dark side of college recruiting, forthcoming changes to the eligibility requirements in the NBA, and more increasingly viable non-collegiate options for professional basketball prospects to consider, the NCAA announced landmark changes to its rule book. In accordance with the recommendations laid out by the Commission on College Basketball in late April, the new rules will fundamentally shift the nature of eligibility across all levels of the game, even before the one-and-done era in the NBA is abolished. But like most things sanctioned by the NCAA, the language leaves ample room for gray areas. It’s fair to wonder how any of these sweeping modifications will be explained, let alone implemented, in full.

Here are three of the most groundbreaking changes:

College players who declare for the NBA draft with remaining college eligibility will have the option to return to their former school if they go undrafted.

Division I schools also will be required to pay for tuition, fees, and books for all players who decide to return after being undrafted. Only two years ago, the NCAA tweaked its basketball eligibility rules to allow underclassmen to declare for the draft multiple times, and participate in the NBA combine and a team tryout once per year, while also extending the withdrawal deadline to 10 days after the combine. That was notable at the time. This year’s change makes 2016 feel like 1916. For prospects, declaring for the draft was once a leap of faith. The NCAA will now offer a cushion at the bottom, which should appeal to players, schools, and college fan bases alike. But ultimately, it’s a business decision. The NBA’s one-and-done rule is on its last legs. Darius Bazley, a top-20 recruit, is trying to pave a course to the NBA through the G League’s backdoor; and earlier this year, the Australian NBL launched its “Next Stars” initiative, aiming to lure high-level high school prospects away from the NCAA to start their pro careers Down Under, the way 2017 Thunder first-round pick Terrance Ferguson did. Faced with the looming threats to its talent pool, the NCAA is clearly hoping to maintain a compelling (and profitable) product on the court, and giving NBA hopefuls the option to return to their schools is a no-brainer.

“Elite” high school recruits and college prospects will be allowed to have an NCAA-certified agent to aid in their decision-making process in turning pro.

Shocking, but this rule appears to be undercooked. The NCAA assigned USA Basketball the task of designating which players earn elite status, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Team USA wants no part of that responsibility:

Even if this does move forward as intended, as ESPN’s Jonathan Givony noted, it’s unclear how the designation process would affect players ineligible to play for Team USA, like Canadian R.J. Barrett (Duke) and Nigerian Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky).

Player assignments are vague, but no vaguer than the part these agents will play upon entering the NCAA fold. Agents will not play any financial role in these players’ lives, which is essentially like buying a child a toy for Christmas but locking it in a safe and tossing the safe in the ocean. According to USA Today’s Dan Wolken, players will only be able to establish relationships with agents at the end of the basketball season; should an undrafted prospect opt to return to college, the player-agent relationship would have to be terminated. This is either a billion-dollar entity’s fundamental misreading of how relationships work, or a reimagining of hookup culture in the context of professional eligibility. The NCAA is a complex network of tacit agreements and wink-nudge politics. It’s impossible to imagine how inviting agents—who are paid to find loopholes!—to the mix will tidy anything up.

School presidents and athletic department staff will be contractually obligated to cooperate with future investigations. Information from external parties (like government agencies, or a court of law) can now be used in a school’s internal investigations.

In essence, this establishes some degree of authority that the NCAA did not previously possess. While NCAA president Mark Emmert maintains the association does not have subpoena power, this does force compliance from college higher-ups, who are now personally responsible for their school’s adherence to the rules. The FBI investigation has been a drawn-out disaster for the NCAA, but internal investigations from schools were often even more laborious. Because the association does not have the same power that the courts do, it was easier for witnesses or people with knowledge of the situation to avoid talking with investigators. The NCAA is attempting to streamline the process without really addressing the inherent evils head-on. So much is happening, but at its core, the NCAA is not changing one bit.