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Condoleezza Rice: 'College basketball is in trouble ... and time is ticking'

INDIANAPOLIS — When you have a job this big, you need a heavy hitter. Condoleezza Rice stepped up and took her best cuts at the massive problems afflicting college basketball, and the sport will be better because of it.

Not healed. Far from perfect. But better.

In her roles as U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, the 63-year-old Rice has handled far more important issues than shoe companies funneling money to teenage basketball players. Really, the NCAA should be flattered and honored that she took an interest in cleaning up the squalor on its hands — a mess that spilled into public view when the U.S. Attorney’s Office shined a light on it last September and forced a day of reckoning.

“It pains me to see some of the corruptive influences in what is, by and large, a very good idea,” Rice said in a one-on-one interview with Yahoo Sports. “College basketball is in trouble … and time is ticking.”

With Rice and a lot of other smart and serious leaders engaged, things will change. She stood at a lectern here Wednesday morning flanked by some of the most respected people in and around college sports, facing a roomful of others and a worldwide online audience, and offered a path to progress for a sport gone astray. The consensus building and idea hatching had already been done over the past six months, and this was the delivery.

In a word, Condi Rice led. And the recommendations from the Commission on College Basketball will be fast-tracked into reality very quickly.

How quickly? August is the stated goal, according to Georgia Tech president Bud Peterson. Votes were taken Wednesday, shortly after the commission’s findings were made public, to begin the legislative process. The hard work of hammering out the details is yet to come, but the ball is rolling downhill.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a news conference at the NCAA headquarters Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP)

What’s coming, in some form or fashion: a new enforcement model that outsources the most complicated and significant investigations; harsher penalties for cheaters; a contractual obligation for coaches and administrators to cooperate with NCAA investigations; a push to terminate the NBA’s one-and-done rule; an allowance for undrafted players to return to college basketball; a financially enhanced degree completion program for players who finished at least two years of college; a remaking of non-scholastic basketball; a more enlightened approach to agent interactions with players; and other stuff.

What’s not coming: the end of the amateurism model, or even any substantive alteration to it.

That was never going to happen with this commission. NCAA president Mark Emmert said as much when it was created in October and reiterated it at the Final Four. The NCAA doesn’t want to tackle that, and Rice offered a compelling opinion why in a one-on-one interview with Yahoo Sports.

“We believe the collegiate model is worth defending,” Rice said. “What’s the value proposition between the student-athlete and the university? When the basketball player goes out and generates, through team play, extraordinary revenues, which then produce high salaries for coaches — I understand all that. But the value proposition from our point of view is that you are engaging in an activity that is going to give you a lifetime value proposition in the form of a college degree.

“If you have a real college degree — and I emphasize real — your earning power is a million dollars greater than a non-college graduate. Students you are going to school with who are not athletes are taking down loans, working 20 hours a week, their parents are scrounging for money to get the same thing you’re getting for free for playing a sport you love. You’re also getting the best training, the best coaching and the best health care, nutrition, academic support. That’s a good value proposition.”

That inherent value can be hard to remember in a sport that has been powered by short-sighted greed for decades. It has long been out of vogue to play the long game — four years of college, meaningful degree programs, diplomas, planning for a future beyond basketball. The rush to make money as teenagers — and off the backs off teenagers — has distorted the collegiate part of the basketball continuum as it stretches from playgrounds to the pros.

Changing that mindset may never happen. Rinsing the cynicism out of the game is unlikely. Ending corruption is impossible.

But reclaiming some of the redemptive value of college basketball is possible. It doesn’t have to be an educational and ethical sham of the highest order.

Giving players with no interest in higher education a direct path to pro ball is a start. Serious, career-killing penalties for scofflaws would also help. “The [current] penalty structure is a joke,” said one college administrator involved in the NCAA crime-and-punishment process. Corralling shoe companies, AAU basketball and agents are more problematic issues that will require a lot of external cooperation from parties not beholden to NCAA rules, but are worthy goals.

Enlisting USA Basketball, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association will help, and that is part of the plan. “One thing that became really clear, these entities don’t talk to each other very much,” Rice said. An accomplished consensus builder, opening those lines of communication and cooperation will be a big part of her impact on this reformation process.

“There will be some things that are hard to do,” Rice said. “But I’m encouraged by the collaboration we got in putting together this report.”

Still: All of this self-healing requires accountability at the top. The NCAA must admit it is a big part of the problem — something my colleague Dan Wetzel points out was largely lacking on Wednesday. Leadership has been reactive, not proactive, and the fact that the enforcement department has been powerless to stop commonly known corruption speaks volumes.

“Even the compliance staff of the NCAA thought this was an area that needed to be revised,” Rice said.

And so it will be. But trickle-down accountability must spread from Indianapolis to college campuses around the nation.

Schools must face the music when they’re caught violating rules, instead of shamelessly lawyering their way around consequences (Rice made deliberate mention of the North Carolina academic farce.) Presidents must stop paying lip service to integrity, then turning around and hiring proven cheaters. Athletic directors must temper their lust for profit with an aversion for scandal. And coaches need to police themselves and their competitors, instead of burying the truth and tolerating cheating in their profession.

Many coaches will roll their eyes at the Rice Commission findings and complain about the recommended changes. They’re hereby advised to get onboard with the new reality, or get run over by it.

“Everyone better get their heads lifted, their eyes straight, and start moving in unison toward a new day,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said of the coaching community. “Stopping to stomp our feet if we don’t like what we hear? No. We better be at the forefront.

“The coaching community was all marked by this scandal. The public impression of coaches was permanently graffiti’d on, frankly. Now we’re going to rebuild the game. I think it’s going to be a new game.”

If so, Condi Rice and her commission was the game changer.

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