College basketball is broken, a fact that even the NCAA now accepts. The model of amateurism the sport sells has been compromised for years, tainted by the black market the NCAA helped create and the billion dollar business basketball has become.
Recruits are commodities to agents, shoe companies and programs, but it is against the NCAA rules to pay them. There needs to be a better option for the players, but as long as the one-and-done rule exists, the NBA isn’t one of them. Perhaps the G-League can be.
Over at The Undefeated, Marc Spears wrote a thoughtful plea for top recruits to consider entering the G-League out of high school. The money is legal, the competition is superior, and there’s no need to worry about attending Math 102. All of it makes sense.
There’s only one thing holding it back: college basketball still matters so much more to so many people than the G-League ever will. For all of its flaws, college basketball still means something. The system needs to be fixed, not abandoned completely, for these reasons.
The marketing power of college basketball remains unrivaled
No one knew who LaVar Ball was when ESPN interviewed him in the stands during UCLA’s game against Portland in Dec. 2016. Ball looked into the camera and guaranteed the Bruins would win the national championship. He ended up being wrong, but it didn’t matter: this was the first time LaVar Ball entered the public consciousness, and he hasn’t left yet.
Ball quite literally spoke his dream into existence. He milked college basketball for all it was worth, and leveraged the sport’s appeal to help turn himself and his sons into international celebrities. This simply never would have happened if Lonzo was playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants instead.
There is still no substitute for the exposure that comes from college basketball. There are national television contracts, nightly updates on SportsCenter, major investments from the shoe companies and a season-ending tournament that annually captures the attention (and money) of the entire country.
If you want to build a brand before entering the NBA, you can do it in college a lot easier than in the G-League. The Greensboro Swarm will never be Duke.
Going to college is a lot more fun
College is described as the best four years of your life by people who are as unspectacular as me and you. Imagine how a DI athlete must feel.
There is simply no comparison in terms of quality of life between the G-League and high major college basketball for an 18-year-old. In college they are the kings of campus, surrounded only by their peers, traveling by private flights and often training in state of the art facilities. Those basketball dorms at Kansas are a lot nicer than anywhere you’re staying playing for the Erie BayHawks.
Going to college also always gives you a home to come back to. Will Denver Nuggets fans or New York Knicks fans always love Carmelo Anthony? Probably not, but Syracuse fans will.
With the obvious exception of Ben Simmons, one-and-done players largely seem to cherish the college experience even though they’re exactly the people who being taken advantage of by the system. Maybe that shouldn’t automatically be discounted.
You get paid more in college anyway
ha ha ha.
The going rate for a low-end five-star recruit like Brian Bowen appears to be $100K. The G-League has a maximum salary of $26K for players not on NBA contracts. You also have to use that money to, like, live. In college, the housing, the food, it’s all covered. G-League players also have housing covered and get a stipend for the road.
The sport will be cleaned up to an extent in the wake of the FBI investigation. It would also be naive to think it will ever be totally clean. There’s simply too much money in college basketball for it to be.
There is nothing like the atmosphere of college basketball
Millions of kids grow up wanting to play in the Final Four, to play at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, to play for Coach K. Look at how people live and die for Kentucky vs. Louisville every year. Watch how hard Iowa State fans go at Hilton Coliseum, even when they’re in last place in the Big 12.
In the G-League, you’re playing in half empty gyms in nondescript cities on a YouTube stream without anything really on the line. There’s nothing that even comes close to the experience of playing in the NCAA tournament. There’s no match for the fans, the television cameras, the feeling that this Indiana-Purdue game in the middle of January actually means something.
It’s awfully hard for the G-League to think it can compete with that.
So what can the NCAA realistically do?
Allow players to work with agents. The change has already been made in college hockey.
Allow players to make a profit off their likeness. If Miami is selling a Lonnie Walker IV jersey, Lonnie Walker IV should make some money off it. Same for selling autographs and some other endorsements. If a player can profit from his or her YouTube page, more power to them.
The current NCAA model is garbage, yes, but the G-League also needs massive change to its infrastructure before it’s an appealing farm system. Maybe one day, but given the type of investment it would require from NBA owners, it’s hard to see that happening in the near future.
It would be great if there was a viable alternative to playing college basketball for top recruits. But at the moment, the G-League still has a long way to go before it can match the perks of playing big-time college hoops.