JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Jay Bilas was/is a member of the recruiting class that started the Duke dynasty, an assistant coach, an attorney, ESPN analyst extraordinaire, Twitter super user, outspoken critic of the NCAA and, judging by his Dove commercials, one of the country’s foremost authorities on skin care for men. But until Tuesday night, this Renaissance man had never been the master of ceremonies for a panel discussion of coaches.
Bilas got his chance because of his friendship with East Tennessee State basketball coach Murray Bartow. ETSU decided to bring back former coaches Sonny Smith and Les Robinson—both legends in Johnson City—and pair them with former Appalachian State, Georgia Tech and College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins, and—through the magic of Facetime—Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Gonzaga’s Mark Few for a fundraiser/panel discussion.
Bilas was only too happy to take part, and he refused the stipend he was offered. ETSU donated it to a children’s hospital.
The house was packed and the conversation informative, entertaining and funny, but Bilas’ role as moderator didn’t afford him the chance to expound, much like he does on ESPN GameDay or Twitter, on a variety of topics about which he’s become passionate.
But before the program began, Bilas was more than willing discuss an issue that has given him endless material for Tweets and ESPN.com columns, the NCAA:
What would you do if you were suddenly anointed king of the NCAA?
“We’ve got some challenges. If I could offer suggestions that would be taken seriously, the first thing I would do is have sport-specific governance. College basketball needs its own governance. There needs to be a college basketball equivalent of a commissioner, and there needs to be a governing body that handles only basketball.
“It’s the cash cow of the NCAA, and it needs to be treated as such. I think that’s true of all NCAA sports, that they need their own specific governance. I trust volleyball to run their sport the way they see fit. I trust field hockey, swimming. There’s no reason these sports should be lumped in to the same governing structure. It’s gotten ridiculous. There’s no reason for it. We can do this differently. We can do it in a more efficient, better fashion.
“The next thing I would do is create an overall governing structure, if it remains under the NCAA umbrella. We have a commitment to stay in our lane. The NCAA as an athletic association should be concerned with administering championships. All these other issues we’re getting in to are unnecessary and out of our lane.
“I trust the schools to make their own decisions on admissions, to make their own decisions on their academics. We don’t need a clearinghouse that duplicates a core function of the universities.”
What’s the answer to the issue of paying stipends to players over and above the cost of their scholarships?
“This is the problem the NCAA’s gotten in to. They’ve created a structure where football and basketball pay for everything else, and then they use the structure as a barrier to doing more for the player. They say we can’t [pay stipends]. So it’s on the player. ‘If we did more for you, then we’d have to sacrifice other [non-revenue] sports [to pay for it].’
“We don’t say that to coaches or to administrators who are getting their fair market value. We say to the players, ‘we’re not making any money. Athletic departments aren’t in the black, so there’s nothing for you.’ We don’t say that to coaches, we don’t say that to administrators. They all get their fair market value.”
How can players get their fair market value?
“I’ve probably done a poor of articulating my position on this. I don’t suggest or assert that school should pay the players. That sounds like a mandate. I think it should be more permissive. Let the schools decide what they’re gonna do. Just like we do with everybody else. Take these restrictions off, let the free market work, and if we’ve got some concerns to reasonably regulate it, we can regulate it from there.
“Let a kid have an autograph signing or do a commercial. Maybe there would be a legitimate concern—we don’t want [a booster] aligned with [a power conference school] to say, ‘well, you do a commercial for my ice cream shop and I’ll pay you 20 million dollars.’ That’s unreasonable, it’s out of market and out of balance. We can regulate that. Schools can regulate it themselves, and there could be a governing body over top of that.
“We’ve got similar things in place now. Players are allowed to have a job. And there’s a similar concern. If you’re allowed to get a job, an alum’s gonna pay you a million dollars to keep the alligators out of his swimming pool. We regulate that. The idea that we can’t is what I call a rationalization or an excuse.”
Could this issue ultimately lead to a restructuring of college athletics?
“I think power conferences could ultimately break away, I do. Some of these schools should have to make a decision. If you don’t want to give the players anything, that’s fine. Play Division II or Division III. But if you want to play in the top division, everybody’s using their resources and it’s clearly a professional enterprise.
“Because you know what, it’s a pro sport. College basketball and college football are pro sports. It’s pro. The BCS championship game is the Super Bowl where the players go to school the next day. The NCAA tournament championship game is the same thing.
“You have coaches making five and seven and 10 million dollars and we want to say it’s an amateur sport. It’s not an amateur sport. That ship sailed a long time ago. And that’s OK. It was pro when I played. It’s even more so now. You can’t even argue with that anymore.”
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