The price of winning in college athletics

College athletics is about winning — often at any cost.

Player compensation has owned a stake in college sports for much of its history, despite it being clearly against NCAA regulations.

The NCAA, which runs college athletics, was originally an organization created for player safety. In the process, it also helped stave off the banishment of football.

But now, the NCAA generates more than one billion dollars per year — and players aren’t allowed to receive any of it.

What’s an impermissible benefit?

The NCAA rules against “impermissible benefits” have been, and are, broken by schools time and time again to gain an advantage over other competing schools. It’s also a part of big time college athletics culture.

Here are some impermissible benefits that student-athletes and prospects can’t receive from university employees or athletics representatives.

Receiving any of the following will jeopardize a student-athlete’s eligibility: cash or loans in any amount; gifts of any kind or free services; special discounts for goods or services; use of an automobile; a promise of financial aid for postgraduate education; and tickets to an athletic, institutional or community event.

Athletes receiving impermissible benefits might not be common throughout all Division I athletic programs. It’s much more common within Football Bowl Subdivision programs. And within the FBS, it’s historically the wealthiest programs within the Power Five conferences that break NCAA benefits rules.

When a rumor circulates, fans of rival schools — most likely with little insight — will scream guilty.

“There’s always allegations,” Dave Ubben, Tennessee football beat writer for The Athletic, said. “Jeremy Stidham is a good example at Auburn flips commit to Baylor. Then he post a picture in a Baylor hoodie next to a big truck. But there’s no information to back it up. He had a good relationship with [Baylor head coach] Art Briles.”

Tracking down pay-for-play

It’s often hard to pinpoint that anything against the NCAA’s rules has even happened.

This is the process through which a potential violation could actually make the news.

Team A a team with no history of grabbing strong recruits gets a highly touted recruit to commit. Ubben said that a booster at Team B, who knows that Team A gave the players some benefits, can become upset.

“The most common situation is when someone feels done wrong in some way and blows the whistle,” Ubben said. “Usually [it’s] a disgruntled party that is aware of what happened or for whatever reason.”

One of those reasons may be because a recruit switched their commitment after receiving benefits from the disgruntled party or their program.

That disgruntled party may notify the NCAA or a reporter of the situation off the record. Ubben also mentioned it’s very possible that a booster that was phased out of Team A may give the NCAA a tip about Team A’s improper recruiting methods.

Before they make the claims, the NCAA or the reporter would still need to do labor-intensive research and fact-checking before it hits the news.

“If you’re going to mention a guys names, you better have facts to back it up,” Ubben said.

Real allegations and violations

A 2017 FBI investigation made national headlines because of alleged bribery, wire fraud and corruption in college basketball.

An Adidas executive was found guilty for two charges conspiracy to commit wire fraud and actual wire fraud for his part in findings of the Louisville program. The executive was also found guilty for another count of wire fraud with the Kansas program.

Louisville’s former head coach, Rick Pitino, was fired after the report was published.

In February 2019, specific players and more schools involved became public when Yahoo! Sports discovered documents and bank records from the FBI investigation. Yahoo! said “at least 20 Division I basketball programs and more than 25 players” were involved in what would be NCAA violations.

In football, former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze resigned in 2017 after USA Today reported he made a phone call, from an university phone, to an escort service. Those calls coordinated with his trips to recruit players.

Despite the potential consequences of getting caught, the athletic world still firmly believes that programs are still using gifts to court recruits in some way, shape or form.

“There is no evidence that anything has changed per se,” Ryan Wright, the national recruiting director for Recruiting News Guru, said. “If a staff is going to cheat, or an alumni base, they will cheat.”

Wright went on to say that he thinks the recruiting style culture is set by the head coach’s character and trickled down through the rest of the program.

But boosters who provide money to these univeristies have power in decisions on coaching hires and firings.

“With the massive salaries given to college coaches to win, especially among Power 5 teams, extra pressure is put upon them to win and win immediately,” Wright said. “Some coaching staffs may feel the need to lure a player with illegal benefits succumbing to external pressure. Some form of cheating has seemingly been in the game for 40 to 50 years if not longer. The actions of Rick Pitino and/or Hugh Freeze will not change that.”

The NCAA violations possibly take place in sports other than the biggest money generators for the NCAA — men’s basketball and football.

Los Angeles Angels pitcher and former Georgia State Panther Nathan Bates said he heard of rumors that players at Power Five schools received impermissible benefits in the process of committing to a college program.

“I didn’t know of any benefits going on at GSU or any mid major schools and I only heard the same rumors as other people about things like big SEC schools giving benefits to football players and things like that,” Bates said.

Even though he’s only heard of this occurring in football, he’s “sure it happens in the big D1 baseball schools for big prospects too.”

What’s next?

Playing college basketball, and by default dealing with the NCAA, could become less popular for the top prospects beginning in 2019.

The NBA is now allowing elite prospects to skip college and go to the G League for $125,000 contracts as long as they’re 18 years old. The G League is the NBA’s developmental league. For elite prospects, immediately joining the G League is a way to maneuver around playing college basketball and make money over the table.

The NBA requires players to spend at least one year removed from high school, so players usually spend one year playing basketball in college or overseas professionally to become eligible for the NBA. A players who does that is commonly referred to as a “one-and-done.”

Even bigger news for high school basketball players who want to go straight to the NBA is this: In late February, USA Today reported that the NBA proposed lowering the age of NBA Draft-eligible players from 19 to 18 in time for the 2022 NBA Draft.

NBA players have been successful in the NBA before the league required players to be 19 years old and a year removed from high school. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady and J.R. Smith are just a few.

Still, not every prospect will be more enticed to go to the G League or enter NBA Draft in 2022 because of the money.

But if the college head coaches, conferences and the NCAA allowed players to make money off their name and likeness, then it’s a possibility that players won’t accept impermissible benefits as frequently as they do today. It could help college be more attractive than jumping to the pros out of high school.

“The natural next stop is the Olympic model, the right to monetize your name, likeness,” Ubben said. “If a car dealership wants to give a recruit $100,000 to a player to sign autographs, schools don’t have to pay. No Title IX issues. It just hasn’t happened because the people in power have no incentive to change. They’re not losing money. I don’t understand. There is no good reason why the Olympic model isn’t in place.”

The NCAA said that the culture of giving players under-the-table benefits is a problem if those allegations are indeed true. Many people, including the players making money for the NCAA, say that the NCAA limiting players from making money for themselves is the real problem.