The Rich Paul Rule is proof the NCAA knows its days are numbered

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The NCAA’s reversal on a rule requiring agents for student-athletes to have college degrees is the clearest indication yet this dressed-up cartel is facing an existential crisis

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s risible Rich Paul Rule is the clearest indication yet that the governing body of collegiate sports in America is terrified their stranglehold on the amateur athletes who drive the billion-dollar industry of college basketball may soon be coming to an end.

The controversial memo, first revealed last week, was a tweak that restricted who college basketball players hoping to enter the NBA could select as their agents. Under the change, college players’ agents would, among other criteria, need to have a bachelor’s degree.

It was the type of bureaucratic change that might have gone unnoticed if it didn’t seem to explicitly target Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, the 37-year-old super-agent whose client list includes NBA stars such as LeBron James, Anthony Davis, John Wall and Ben Simmons – and who happens to have not graduated from college. Almost as soon as it was quietly reported, James amplified it to his 43m followers on Twitter with a simple, shade-dripped hashtag.

The questions rapidly mounted. Had an agent with Paul’s influence upset the NCAA’s power dynamic so dramatically it was forced to react? Was the rule racially tinged? After all, no one had an issue when super-agents Arn Tellem and David Falk, who are both white, were running the league in the 1990s like Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes. Nothing against them, they were great agents who cornered the market in a different era. But now that it’s a young black man gaining power, suddenly there’s a problem that requires barriers to entry?

Thanks largely to LeBron’s social bullhorn, the backlash was immediate and severe enough for the NCAA to reverse course on the rule entirely this week. The question now is why they felt compelled to try it in the first place.

Does the NCAA suddenly feel remorse for the way it has taken advantage of young athletes for decades? Will it now come up with a plan to fairly compensate college ballplayers instead of exploiting them – not unlike when a business goes into an underdeveloped country, sets up shop and pays its workers pennies a day while it reaps millions … or, in the case of the NCAA, billions of dollars?

Or was it because the rule came under highly visible criticism after James brought attention to it, prompting a cross-section of celebrities, media members and fellow NBA players to take turns dragging the NCAA in the public square?

Ultimately, Paul himself chimed in with a blistering op-ed for the Athletic. “The harmful consequences of this decision will ricochet onto others who are trying to break in. 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,” Paul wrote. “In this case, the people being locked out are kids who aspire to be an agent and work in the NBA and do not have the resources, opportunity or desire to get a four-year degree. Does anyone really believe a four-year degree is what separates an ethical person from a con artist?”

All fantastic points.

Many have bought into the argument that the Rich Paul Rule was evidence the NCAA genuinely cares about its student-athletes. That it’s an attempt to protect young athletes from shady hucksters selling their guidance without possessing the qualifications needed to properly give that counsel. Or that Paul isn’t representing players testing the waters, but rather top-flight prospects who are certain to get chosen in the draft – so this rule couldn’t possibly be aimed to undermine his success but instead represents an earnest attempt by the NCAA to do what it can to protect and serve its student-athletes.

Others have argued the rule was in response to the recent NCAA corruption scandal, the FBI probe which targeted a conspiracy of coaches, agents and shoe companies buying, bribing and selling players, resulting in multiple players being suspended or declared ineligible, and several big-name programs and coaches getting sanctioned or fired. The thinking goes the NCAA wanted to make a gesture of self-regulation to get in front of the curve before the hammer of government intervention was brought down.

To me, there’s one far more likely explanation: the NCAA drew up a new set of rules that represented a naked attempt to reassert its dominance and control over young athletes who have (correctly) become convinced that their talent is worth a lot more than a scholarship, room and board and their meal plan. The NCAA remains dedicated to destroying the competition, limiting the athlete’s value and extracting the surplus at a maximum volume. And now feels threatened it is losing its hold on the minds of NBA prospects who once viewed the NCAA as the only road to achieving their professional dreams.

The NCAA appears to be desperately attempting to cling to power as it knows there is a strong possibility that within the next decade or two, its entire reason for existing may be rendered obsolete.

After taking a day to digest the abundance of criticism, the NCAA issued a response: “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. We were guided by recommendations from the Commission on College Basketball – which spoke with the agent and advisor community – that the NCAA certification process should be more stringent than current processes.”

That goes right back to NCAA’s most shopworn talking point: the equivalence of the education it offers through full scholarships to the services rendered for an organization that generated an estimated $1bn in revenue last year. But the logic falls flat in the knowledge that Paul, a fast-rising industry titan who’s become a household name among basketball fans, never actually obtained the degree the NCAA dangles as a prerequisite for success. What’s more, the NCAA says its motivation is a response to “protect the collegiate eligibility of their athlete clients”.

Hmmm. Athlete clients. Interesting choice of words. What happened to student-athletes? Now we’re not even pretending it’s not a business arrangement between young ballplayers and a billion-dollar “non-profit” fighting tooth and nail to avoid fairly compensating its workforce. The pretzel logic insults the intelligence of all thinking people, bachelor’s degree or not. It’s like Donald Trump telling the country that his divisive rhetoric actually brings people together: it’s just a ridiculous, asinine statement. But I digress.

Not long ago I spoke with Guardian columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, regarded by many as college basketball’s greatest ever player, for my book, We Matter: Athletes And Activism, and he minced no words in his assessment of the NCAA.

“What makes college sports such a powerful symbol in our culture is that it represents our attempt to impose fairness on an otherwise unfair world,” he said. “Fair play, sportsmanship and good-natured rivalry are lofty goals to live by. But by treating the athletes like indentured servants, we’re tarnishing that symbol and reducing college sports to just another exploitation of workers, no better than a sweatshop.”

I agree 100% with Kareem. If America’s institutions of higher learning conferred bachelor’s degrees in hypocrisy, the NCAA would have graduated summa cum laude – and would have been more than qualified under the Rich Paul Rule to advise the players it hollowly claims to love and care for.

Even with the NCAA doing an about-face on last week’s announcement, college athletes still exist as Tiny Tims as their universities are Ebenezer Scrooges sitting behind the desk and counting their mountains of money that continue to roll in at higher amounts year after year. The Rich Paul Rule was a transparent attempt at protecting those piles and preserving the power and very existence of the NCAA at all costs. The NCAA lost its battle in the court of public opinion – but hold off on the victory celebrations because this dressed-up cartel has been winning the war of exploitation for decades.

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