The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

It’s a big Final Four weekend for loyal Gamecocks fan Darius Rucker The South Carolina alumnus hopes to witness history with victories by both the men’s and women’s teams

Country music star Darius Rucker loves his South Carolina Gamecocks. He was photographed with tears rolling down his face after South Carolina defeated Florida in the Elite Eight at Madison Square Garden. He played a concert with two TVs below the stage so he could watch the men’s team against Baylor in the Sweet 16.

Rucker became a multiplatinum, Grammy-award winning artist as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Hootie & the Blowfish, which he formed at the University of South Carolina in 1986 with Mark Bryan, Jim Sonefeld and Dean Felber.

In 2008, Rucker’s first single from the Learn to Live album, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” made him the first African-American with a No. 1 country song since Charley Pride in 1983. A year later, he became the first African-American to win the Country Music Association’s New Artist Award and only the second African-American to win any award from the association.

From an impromptu road trip with his son to watch the Gamecocks play against Florida to hoping Dawn Staley can cement her coaching legacy by ending the UConn Huskies’ winning streak if the teams were to advance to the women’s championship game, Rucker went in-depth about his personal relationship with South Carolina.

He starts by explaining that picture of him crying with his 12-year-old son by his side.

At that moment I was remembering my freshman year of college, when we had the No. 2 football team in the country, and we go to Navy and we’re giving Navy 35 and they beat us by 35. I remember the mid-’90s, having the 2-seed and losing to Coppin State, a 15-seed, and then the next year, having a 3-seed and losing to Richmond. For Gamecocks fans, that was being a Gamecock.

To watch that team play the defense they play and make it to the Final Four, I was thinking about [head coach] Frank Martin, who is a great guy, who came here and said he was going to turn it around. There were silly naysayers who said you’re never going to turn South Carolina around, and here we are in the Final Four. Being there with my son, who’s a bigger Gamecocks fan than I am, it all just came to a head. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion and happiness because of the fact that we were going to the Final Four.

I was just always a fan, and [my son] started going to games with me when he was 1 or 2. He loved it. He loves watching football and … we go to basketball and baseball games, and he loved it, so as he got older and older his love grew. I love him, and he’s my best buddy, and so the more I loved them, the more he loved them. He loves them more than I do, like I hear from him every day, ‘Dad, I’m going to South Carolina,’ [and I say,] ‘I know, bud.’

Darius Rucker sings the national anthem before an NCAA college basketball game between Kentucky and South Carolina Feb. 13, 2016, in Columbia, South Carolina.

AP Photo/Sean Rayford

That’s easy, the other day in the Garden. He and I, we busted our butts to get there. I played a show somewhere in Texas, and he was with me and we drove a little while, we got in a plane, we flew all the way there, just me and him. We get there and we go to the game, and he’s got to go to school the next day, so right after the game we’re getting in the car and getting back in the plane. He and I, we just can’t stop talking about it. We talked about it the whole time. Sindarius Thornwell is his favorite player ever, and he actually wears [jersey No.] 0 in his basketball league.

You’re saying the right things, like, ‘I know we’re going to win,’ but deep down inside you’re like, ‘Come on, Gamecocks.’ We lost six of our last nine in the regular season, and we lost in the SEC tournament, so you’re thinking, ‘Are we even going to make the tournament?’ And then they get in, and they start playing tremendous basketball. You can really look at South Carolina and argue they’re playing the best defense in the tournament.

It’s not a spoil of riches [having two teams in the Final Four]. Now if people want to talk to me on Tuesday, ’cause we’ve won two national championships, that’s a spoil of riches. Our women’s program, that was one thing I’ve been trying to say to people: We sit here talking about the men, our women’s program is becoming a dynasty. If we can get by Connecticut and win one national championship, then people are going to start using that word for what [head coach] Dawn Staley is doing down there. She’s building this great program that every year is right there, every year at some point in the season is ranked No. 1, and then Connecticut beats them, but every year this is happening for us. Everyone is talking about the men, and it’s great they’re a Cinderella story, but our women are dominating. And right now, I said to somebody yesterday that you can say what you want, but we’re the best basketball school in the country. Both our teams are in the Final Four, both our teams are playing great ball. It’s amazing to be a part of that. I knew Coach Martin was going to turn it around. I didn’t know it was going to turn around this quick. I always felt when he got his players in there that he’ll do something. The sky is the limit now; this is going to definitely help recruiting.

When I was a kid, I probably would’ve said I liked Carolina. College sports for me was the NFL and the NBA, that’s what we talked about. The only thing happening back then was Clemson winning the championship in 1981. But when I went to school there in 1984, everything changed. I’d say my blood runs garnet, and even as I got older in high school I really loved the people there. I loved the community there and the alumni. When you see people you say, ‘Hey,’ and acknowledge them. Our sports programs are one of the things that keeps us together and keeps us abreast of news and what’s going in South Carolina. It makes you want to go back there and see all of your old college buddies. I think when I went there that’s when my fandom really took off.

I’ve got a bunch of guys I went to college with, and we still see each other all the time, we still hang out. Some of them work with me, and we’re just a close-knit group of people that never let anyone get out of line, never let anyone get a big head, never let anyone think they were too big or too cool to hang out. They kept me in check by just being who they are. They never have to remind me that they were there when it all started, because I know they were all there when it all started. I think I was raised to be the way I am, but I think a lot of it was I went to college and met a lot of down-to-earth, cool dudes who loved their school. We all still go to football games together. We all still hang out together, and I can’t say it was just one person because it was the whole group of guys I hung out with.

Loyalty [is the personality of South Carolina]. Our football team lost 21 games in a row, and we sold out every game. We’ve never won a football national championship or a basketball national championship, but our women this year by far led the country in attendance. It wasn’t even close. We’re a loyal fan base who loves our teams, and we give our teams our all.

Artist Darius Rucker performs the national anthem just before the start of the Outback Bowl between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Michigan Wolverines at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 1, 2013, in Tampa, Florida.

J. Meric/Getty Images

My favorite South Carolina player ever is a tie between Sterling Sharpe and Corey Miller. Those guys were great when they played, and Sterling and I went to college together, and it was a great time to be a Gamecock back then. We had some great teams, and it was fun. My favorite players now are P.J. Dozier and Sindarius Thornwell because they’re dominant. They can talk about all those other guys all they want to, but I’ve watched a lot of college basketball and I think [Thornwell] is the most NBA-ready player I’ve seen. He’s ready to play like now. You’ve got to love A’ja Wilson — she’s such a great, amazing player — and Kaela Davis, she’s going to be a superstar. I love watching her play. I love everything about her.

I want the [North Carolina Tar] Heels [if the men make the final]. … I want to win it against the best. Roy Williams is a friend, and I love him, and he’s one of the greatest coaches of all time and he’s got an amazing program. But if we win it, I want us to say we beat North Carolina. Don’t get me wrong, if Oregon is there, I want to beat them too, but North Carolina is always there. They have so many national championships. The legend of [former head coach] Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and all those great players that went there. I want to beat North Carolina, and it’s the North Carolina-South Carolina rivalry. We’ve got a rivalry for everything, we’ve got a barbecue rivalry, so why not beat North Carolina?

If [the women are] going to win it, then yes [I want to see UConn] in the national championship game. I’d love to beat UConn; I’d love to end their streak in the national championship game and see Dawn Staley go down as a legend. People still talk Digger Phelps [ending UCLA’s 88-game streak]. … I want to be the team to end the streak.

Rucker will be back in Columbia, South Carolina, to perform a concert at the school after promising to do so if the football team won six games.

The show is on Wednesday, and I’m hoping it’s a double national championship celebration. Oh, yeah, absolutely [the teams will be brought on the stage]. Everybody that’s in town will be on that stage. Every team member will be on that stage at some point. I didn’t think we had the [football] players to go win six games. [I thought] there was no chance. They had just gone 3-9. That’s a testament to [head coach Will] Muschamp.

Diversity and inclusion issues on the front burner at CIAA town hall Dialogue ‘we’ve never done’ is important in Charlotte as North Carolina struggles with results of House Bill 2

She looked comfortable and confident walking across the stage to tell a small group of people about the most vulnerable and painful time in her life — a time riddled with tears and self-doubt. Her story took her listeners to Baltimore. She was the oldest of three girls, raised in a family that went to church three nights a week. She was 17, having just committed to Fairleigh Dickinson University on a full NCAA Division I basketball scholarship. It was supposed to be the best time of her life — a new chapter full of learning and opportunity.

Few people knew that deep down she felt pain — the pain of confusion. She knew things in her life were changing — faster than she’d realized — and she became consumed with hiding.

“When I was little, I didn’t think gay people existed,” said Nevin Caple, co-founder and managing director for the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program, an organization whose mission is to help athletic leadership champion a culture of respect and inclusion. “I could hide my sexual orientation, but I was dealing with this struggle — that being gay was a sin. That’s what I’d heard all my life — from my own family.”

Caple said the black community would ask her: “Why would you want to put yourself back in this oppression?” The athletic community, which was her world, flat-out wouldn’t talk openly — because it wasn’t safe. Friends who identified as LGBT couldn’t understand her connection to the religious community, which was such a big part of her upbringing. “I looked for role models and mentors, but they were all closeted. Generations before them were closeted. It was safe to stay hidden.”

As one of three speakers to present during a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament town hall about building equity and inclusion, Caple talked openly about looking at herself through the lens of others: How she walked. How she talked. How baggy her shorts were. “I even went as far as to get a boyfriend. He was one of my closest friends. One day we were hanging out – and I saw his mood change. When I looked at him, he welled up. He said, ‘Nevin, you will never truly love me because you don’t love yourself.’ My very existence depended on them believing my lie. As hard as it was, that liberated me — he told me it was OK to be who I was.”

William Gibson, seated in the eighth row to Caple’s left, waited his turn to tell his story — of acceptance. Her message resonated with his own life story. “I’m a proud son of a teenage pregnancy,” he said. “I’m a product of a third-world country, Liberia.”

It took years for Gibson to speak with such eloquence and confidence. Growing up in an African culture to a teenage mother out of wedlock was frowned upon, he said. He was ashamed of who he was, of who he might become.

“My grandparents made [my mom] understand that she had to keep the child, and on Feb. 24, 1997, I was born during the civil war. My mother’s water broke — in the middle of gunfire. I was born and the war was still going on. War shaped me — I say this: It made me realize I was destined for greatness.”

Gibson is well on his way. A freshman at Winston-Salem University — and the president of his class — he came to America in 2003 having experienced a childhood that often saw lifeless bodies on the sidewalk, crime, rape and cannibalistic rituals.

Things didn’t get much easier for Gibson, who arrived in America having just recovered from malaria. “You’re looked at different. They called me names. They made me feel unimportant. Made me want to hide my identity. It took years to understand and learn that it’s OK to be the black sheep in the room. We’re meant to be different. I realized that — and I took it back to Liberia when I visited in 2012. I reconnected and regained love that I had lost for myself,” continued Gibson, who aspires to attend law school at Howard University.

Undefeated Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida chokes up every time he talks about his father — a man bold enough to dream of being something he’d never seen before. “My dad … ” an emotional Merida explained, “was growing up liking minerals and rocks. He was bold enough to think he wanted to be geologist. This is 1959. His family dissuaded him. There was none before him. But he decided to pursue it – despite admonitions. He graduated from Wichita State University, sent dozens of applications, and for two years, he got no offers.”

Merida continued on, telling the audience what his father endured — sweeping floors and doing janitorial work along the way — until he got the opportunity at the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. “When we started The Undefeated, I couldn’t help but think how my dad was Undefeated,” Merida said, alluding to the Maya Angelou quote that serves as the inspiration behind the site.

“Opportunity can lead to greatness but you have to first have the opportunity,” Merida said in his closing remarks. “We have to talk about bravery. If you’re in a position of influence, risk something. So many people risked things for us. Fought. Bled. We have to remember that – risk something. Inclusion and empowerment can’t be a leisure activity. Invest in people on potential – everybody won’t be fully formed like William and Nevin. We need to invest in potential.”

The conversation and storytelling are an intentional effort by the CIAA — led by its commissioner, Jacqie McWilliams — to be bold, even as thousands of tourists flock into uptown for the conference’s signature basketball tournament, one of Charlotte’s few remaining major sporting events that hasn’t relocated from Queen City over opposition to N.C. House Bill 2 (HB2).

As legislators in Raleigh, North Carolina, have yet to reach consensus on an HB2 repeal compromise, the CIAA beat goes on, with an open invitation to all.

“A lot of us sit here with great intention,” said Caple during the question-and-answer session. “Part of the challenge is the silence in our community. That silence is looked at as rejection.”

Candis Cox, a North Carolina resident and transgender advocate, expressed her feelings of being excluded. “Exclusion is difficult. I walk in with the trifecta: black, transgender and I’m a woman,” she said. “And, I’m tall,” she added.

“I walk into a room and I’m asking: Are people staring at me because I’m black? Because I’m college-educated? Because my skin is different? Because I’m a woman in a male-dominated world? Can I be just as empowering as the men? That is something I deal with day to day. Every day I wake up, I have to account for my blackness, femininity-ness and my transgender-ness.”

And, perhaps it’s exactly why this conversation is being had with only a handful of people in the room — in North Carolina. “The CIAA is saying, we want to have a transgender woman come and speak to us. We want people — all people — to know, regardless of HB2, you’re welcome here. We know as black people what that’s like. We know we’re one lifetime from a time when we were excluded because of legislation. But it wasn’t legislation that hurt us — it’s people. It’s business owners. That’s really what we’re talking about — about how we can make a change. We can do that — together.”

Added McWilliams: “There’s only two black female commissioners in the country. We need more people of color being a part of this great work that we do every day. I wish we could be natural and authentic. HB2 — as terrible as it looks — it’s opened up dialogue in ways we’ve never done.”