Pesky thing about markets is, they are what they are, regardless of what anybody says or thinks they should be. You may say the value of your sweet Pontiac Fiero is $100,000, but unless you can find a buyer at that price, you are wrong, and that’s all there is to it.
On the flip side, a powerful organization may come along, cut off access to college basketball except through itself, and then declare the value of a college basketball player’s labor equates to tuition, room and board. This is as nonsensical as the $100,000 Fiero, obviously. Because the value of a given basketball player is dependent entirely on the demand for him. Anecdotally speaking, it seems the actual market value for the services of a good college basketball player is something closer to tuition, room and board, plus about $100,000, give or take.
All in all, that seems like a fair price.
Even though the powerful organization (cartel) in question, the NCAA, forbids players from being paid market value for their services, it is commonly understood by fans of college basketball that these sorts of backroom deals are brokered all the time. And every now and then what’ll happen is, some clueless teenage power forward will accept a pair of shoes from a friend of the program, and there will be a big long NCAA investigation and maybe a reduction in scholarships or a postseason ban, plus some fallout.
This time, the FBI is raiding the homes of sports agents, and taking coaches and apparel executives to jail. There were no perps or piles of evidence sitting next to U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim at his press conference announcing all this on Tuesday, but it was nonetheless a scene familiar to anybody who’s ever seen some cops standing next to a bunch of bricks of seized cocaine on the evening news — a show of success that doesn’t do much of anything to fix the problem.
At any point in the last 30 years, the FBI could have taken up this cause. The shady influence of shoe companies and sports agents on amateur basketball is perhaps the No. 1 worst-kept secret in American sports. It’s such an old story that when I heard these people had been arrested for accepting bribes in order to funnel players to certain sports agents, my first thought was, “Hold up, that’s illegal?”
So why do this now, as opposed to any other time since basketball shoes got popular? It’s appears the Justice Department has larger goals than scaring college basketball coaches with a handful of street rips, and by now the FBI surely knows that where a black market exists, there will always be fresh talent ready to exploit it.
It could be that the timing is right for the government to take down not just a bunch of assistant coaches and bag men, but the amateurism cartel itself, including the NCAA, whose bylaws have turned basketball talent into contraband.
The NCAA is vulnerable to legal attacks now, though at this point those attacks seem most likely to come in civil, not criminal, court. Because of the ruling in O’Bannon vs. NCAA, it is now a mater of legal precedent that the NCAA’s bylaws constitute “an unreasonable restraint of trade,” violating anti-trust laws. It is true the NCAA appealed that ruling, made by District Judge Claudia Wilken in 2013, but the NCAA’s appeal was only partially successful. Wilken’s suggestions about how to go about fixing the situation were struck down, but the anti-trust thing stuck.
So far that has not amounted to a lot as far as the players are concerned. In the form of a stipend for living expenses, they get a little more money than they used to from their schools, but they’re still trading in a suppressed market, and until that market is free, there are going to be shady dudes carrying bags full of money to impressionable teenagers. Certainly the FBI is aware of this. What it intends to do about it is unfolding as we speak.
If you find it hard to summon much outrage over a scenario that involves people being paid a fair price for their services, you surely are not alone. For all the crowing as Kim did Tuesday about how badly misled and manipulated the players and their families had been by alleged, none of this ever seemed to bother anybody in the Department of Justice until the day before yesterday.
Now, it’s Armageddon.
There’s no telling what’s going to be left of college hoops once Kim and the FBI get done with it, but if those agencies are as dedicated as they say they are to smoking out every last crook in amateur basketball, it’s difficult to imagine something as flimsy as the NCAA’s self-appointed status as keepers of the game withstanding the onslaught.
Because as long as there is still a black market for basketball players, all this amounts to is drugs on the table.