How ESPN analyst Jay Bilas became the NCAA’s loudest critic

Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst, attorney and former Duke basketball player, has been a critic of the NCAA on topics like transfer rules and the amateur status of college sathletes.
Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst, attorney and former Duke basketball player, has been a critic of the NCAA on topics like transfer rules and the amateur status of college sathletes. NBAE/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, Jay Bilas, the NCAA’s foremost critic, does not have much confidence in the steps the organization is taking to evaluate transfer rules.

After a wave of criticism surrounding transfer restrictions on athletes, most notably on North Carolina guard Cameron Johnson’s transfer from Pittsburgh, the Division I Council Transfer Working Group met last month to think of how to “create the best outcomes for both student-athletes and schools involved,” according to the NCAA.

Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst, attorney and former Duke basketball player, thinks only half of that statement is true.

“I don’t think it’ll be different based upon what’s in the best interest of the athlete. I think it’ll be based upon what’s in the best interest of the schools,” Bilas said. “This is about assets, and they want to retain their assets, which really screams that the players are employees.”

Bilas has never been shy about advocating for players to be paid and treated like employees, frequently using his Twitter account with nearly 2 million followers to expose what he sees as NCAA hypocrisy.

“I can’t tell you how many people reach out to me, whether they’re Division II, Division III, and they tell me these horror stories about how they’re treated when they want to transfer,” Bilas said. “Somehow, there’s a narrative out there that the players are the bad guy because they’re impatient.”

It is a topic he has been interested in since he was a player at Duke in the mid-1980s, when he served as a student representative on the NCAA’s long-range planning committee.

“I’m well-versed in it. At least I feel like I am,” Bilas said. “But there are hundreds upon hundreds of voices out there that opine on this all the time.”

When Pittsburgh initially forbade Johnson from transferring to another ACC school with immediate eligibility even after he graduated, Bilas was joined by several other media voices condemning the Panthers’ restrictions. Pittsburgh relented under the pressure and granted Johnson the right to play in Chapel Hill next season.

Bilas said this was one of many examples of schools handling individual cases that generate negative media attention differently while the NCAA keeps its old policies in place.

“They’ve set up this Rube Goldberg-type system that is able to pivot about as quickly as an aircraft carrier can,” Bilas said. “They’re always three steps behind, but that in a lot of ways is intentional that they’ve got this heavy bureaucratic system. ... It’s a convenient excuse for them to say that we can’t change it.”

The NCAA declined to make anybody available for comment for this story, instead pointing to the June 28 press release that announced the goals of the transfer working group.

The organization has made some reactionary changes in the past. In 2014, the NCAA approved unlimited meals for athletes a week after Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier said he went to bed “starving.” It stopped selling jerseys on its online store a year earlier after Bilas used shrewd web searching and a series of tweets to cripple the NCAA’s position that it did not offer specific player merchandise and the number on the back of a jersey – which usually corresponded with a team’s superstar – was coincidental.

But there is still no system in place to compensate athletes or allow them to profit off their likenesses.

“We’re told all the time to the point of nausea that they’re students who just happen to be athletes and they’re to be treated like any other student,” Bilas said. “All this is about is, ‘Are you living up to your rhetoric and to your rules and bylaws?’ The answer is in too many of these cases that they’re not.”

Bilas highlights examples to emphasize his stance on a regular basis and noted that last week, Corona signed a sponsorship deal to be the official beer of the Texas Longhorns. None of the money Texas receives from the deal will go into players’ pockets, and Bilas questioned whether the money will improve the athlete experience or instead boost salaries even more for administrators and coaches.

“It’s business. This is pro sports. They can do whatever they want,” Bilas said. “I don’t have any problem with that at all, but don’t tell me this is not pro sports when you’re doing things like that. These athletes weren’t consulted about whether they wanted to be representing a beer company, and they don’t get any benefit.”

The NCAA has shown no indication that it will back down on its pretense of amateurism, but Bilas is not backing down from his criticisms, either, and other voices are joining the resistance. Even the North Carolina state legislature is in the process of passing a bill that will establish a commission to advocate for college athletes’ rights.

“When the criticism comes the NCAA’s way, what’s the argument for all of us being silent and just accepting what we hear? I can’t think of a good one,” Bilas said. “They preach and proselytize about student-athlete welfare. ... When it’s held up into the sunshine, it doesn’t look or sound very good, and it doesn’t look or sound anything like what they preach to us.”