Letting high schoolers turn pro would solve some of the NCAA’s problems

The NCAA Tournament is almost here, and although that’s wonderful news for those of us who enjoy the unpredictability of March Madness, it’s still an odd moment for college basketball, which is hoping the next three weeks will be devoid of reminders about how slimy it is.

Good luck with that.

Many of us will get caught up in the tournament because that’s what we always do. Some no-name player from an unfamiliar school — Lipscomb? Is that a mustache tool? — will make a shot to beat a big-name college that serves as a waiting room for NBA-bound players. And a brackets-obsessed country either will cheer or throw the remote at the television.

But some of the most talented players in college basketball are freshmen who rather would be making money now, something we were reminded of recently by two stories. Yahoo Sports reported the FBI had documents detailing loans from agents to college players. ESPN reported the FBI secretly had recorded Arizona coach Sean Miller and an agent talking about a $100,000 payment to star freshman DeAndre Ayton. A former assistant at the school already faces federal bribery charges.

Arizona forward Deandre Ayton and coach Sean Miller during a game against Stanford on March 1. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Decade after decade, college basketball has proved incapable of getting itself clean, so those reports didn’t open eyes so much as make them roll. It was business as usual at the feed trough.

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But now there’s hope. How much hope, I don’t know. But even a little bit of the stuff is better than nothing.

According to ESPN, the NBA has been discussing the possibility of again allowing high school players to turn pro. More important, it has discussed using developmental leagues as minor leagues for kids who don’t want to go to college.

In other words, the NBA seems open to the notion that it’s not the end of the world for an 18-year-old player to be paid for doing what he’s good at. Sort of like it’s not the end of the world for an 18-year-old to sign with a pro baseball team or for an 18-year-old to take a job as a plumber’s apprentice.

To be eligible for the draft under current NBA rules, a player has to be 19 or his high school class has to be a year removed from graduation. Since 2006, that has meant a bunch of college freshmen who had to wait a year for the possibility of an NBA payday. They had expectations of eventually being paid, and more than a few shady colleges were willing to help them realize those expectations early.

Kids as commodities. Agents, coaches and schools willing to treat them as such. It’s a story as old as sports.

Letting kids turn pro and educating them about how to live as adults along the way wouldn’t totally clean up the mess, but it would help.

The NCAA’s role of policeman, which it is sorely ill-equipped to play, would be a lot less necessary. We still would be talking about big-money schools and coaches under pressure to win. We would be talking about schools competing against minor leagues for talent, with the potential for cheating still there. But if kids who aren’t cut out for school see another path that doesn’t involve the farce of going to class, it might cut down on some of the sliminess.

The other way, the most sensible way, would be for colleges to pay players. Judging by history, schools don’t seem to be in a hurry to share the massive amounts of money they’ve earned off teenagers.

The reports about the FBI investigation into college basketball are not a tipping point. Scandals have come and gone through the years, and very little has changed. It makes me wonder if cheating in college sports even matters to most fans. It should, but does it?

Sometimes you have to do the right thing, whether there’s an appetite for it or not. This is one of those times. There has to be an answer to some of the cheating. Offering a minor-league option would be an excellent start. Fans and officials already worried about a dilution of talent would be further freaked out, but they would be missing the point.

The lure of the NCAA Tournament is not that the best players of a certain age group are competing for a title. Everybody knows that the top players bolt to the NBA after their freshman year and that the pool of talent already has been thinned. We watch the tournament anyway. We watch because it’s exciting. The lure is the competition, sudden death and 16th-seeded David knocking off top-seeded Goliath.

The NBA can take away more talent from the tournament, but it can’t take away the possibility of something special happening during March Madness. One thing happening doesn’t mean the other can’t.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com