The NCAA bribery case is a scandal largely of their own making

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On Tuesday morning, the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York announced that they had arrested ten people, including four assistant coaches from top-tier Division I college basketball programs for their alleged roles in corruption scandals involving funneling money to prized recruits.

Acting U.S District Attorney Joon H. Kim outlined two separate but related schemes: one involves coaches accepting bribes from a shady group of managers and financial advisers in exchange for steering student athletes to sign with them if and when they turned pro. The other, potentially more widespread racket involves channeling money to top recruits and their families through intermediaries at athletics apparel company Adidas, which has lucrative contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to outfit dozens of Division I programs.

The indictments, unveiled at a press conference in Manhattan yesterday afternoon, sent shockwaves around the college basketball world. Though only four coaches were initially arrested for their roles—one each from USC, Auburn, Oklahoma State, and Arizona—the implication is that Tuesday’s news is just the tip of the iceberg. By Wednesday, the University of Louisville and its storied basketball program (which has a contract with Adidas) had rid itself of head coach Rick Pitino — who was previously implicated in the program’s last scandal involving hiring strippers and prostitutes to curry favor with high school recruits —for his connection with the current investigation, and at least one five-star recruit has already decommitted from Auburn.

Here’s the thing, though. A sporting goods giant paying a top athlete in exchange for wearing their apparel on national television is known in most circles as an endorsement deal. Players in the NBA and other professional and even amateur sports leagues sign endorsement deals all the time. Only in the NCAA is it known as a rules violation.

The NCAA’s draconian bylaws governing how and when “student-athletes” can be financially compensated are almost entirely to blame for the current drama. As it stands, the only contribution a university can make towards a prospective athlete is the offer of a full scholarship and a small stipend to cover cost of living expenses. Athletes are strictly forbidden from taking any money from boosters or profiting at all off of their own talent and ability. The overwhelming majority of Division I athletes will never play professionally, and yet the NCAA bars anyone from capitalizing on what might otherwise be the most lucrative years of their lives. Meanwhile, college athletics generates more than $9 billion in revenue for Division I programs, and the NCAA is in the midst of a multi-year television deal worth more than $1 billion a year to broadcast the month-long March Madness tournament alone. The athletes who play in the tournament won’t see a penny.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, then, to learn that these same athletes are willing to operate in secrecy for the sake of small financial gains they might not otherwise see.

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