Is This The End Of College Basketball?

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The latest scandals may have significant consequences

The stink emanating from college basketball these days has become so overwhelming that you have to wonder whether it’s even worth paying attention. Four assistant coaches have been arrested for taking bribes to steer players toward financial advisors and shoe companies. The probe seems poised to implicate several other schools, including Louisville, which fired head coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

As of now, all of the schools involved, as well as the NCAA, have expressed “shock” and “outrage” that their institutions have been victimized by these unscrupulous people. Anyone not reminded of the casino scene in Casablanca needs to see the movie. You will recall that Pitino was similarly shocked and outraged to discover that one of his assistant coaches was running a brothel for recruits a few years back. At that time, the administration at Louisville believed him, probably because he had just won a national title. Fool me once… or something like that.

The claims of shock and outrage at other schools are probably just as believable as that of Pitino. We will soon find out because part of the basis of the charges against the assistant coaches is that they defrauded the schools by engaging in conduct that would have made players ineligible. You can bet that part of their defense will be that you can’t defraud an institution that is in on the scheme. These guys will throw everybody within arm’s reach under the bus, including head coaches and athletic directors, because it’s their best shot at avoiding prison. Whether their charges stick or not will depend greatly on the credibility of the men they accuse. In other words, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who has already had a show-cause penalty imposed on him by the NCAA, might want to get a good attorney.

Just to summarize, there have been eighteen national champions in this century. Pitino has won one. Three have been won by Roy Williams at North Carolina, which is under investigation for academic fraud. Three have been won by Connecticut, which was placed on probation for recruiting violations that led to the resignation of Jim Calhoun. UConn was banned from the tournament for a year because of low graduation rates. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, which won a title in 2003, served a nine-game suspension last year for failing to monitor his program. So nearly half of the titles in this century have been won by programs that have turned out to be corrupt to some degree. And that’s just the stuff we know about. Several more titles have been won by teams loaded with one and done players who weren’t on campus long enough to see anything beyond the arena. While this is not inherently corrupt, it is hardly ideal. In other words, if your favorite team plays by the rules and recruits players with the expectation of sticking around until they graduate, they are bucking some serious odds.

While the players are hardly innocent in all of this, their role is at least understandable. College football and basketball have been so infested with greed that to expect an eighteen-year-old kid to watch coaches, shoe companies, ticket brokers, jersey sellers, and even the folks in the food trucks outside the stadium make money off his sweat and not want some for himself is naive. I’ve never seen a model for paying players that was economically feasible, but the stipend that graduate students get in exchange for doing research and grading exams seems like a good basis for comparison. The time required for playing a sport and the benefit accrued by the school for the effort is probably comparable to that of a graduate student. That’s not enough to stop a guy from being tempted if a shoe company or agent wants to help him out, but it is a tangible step away from the pure hypocrisy of the current system.

One thing that seems self-evident to me is that the one-and-done system has made this much worse. A human being will comply with any set of rules, no matter how ridiculous, and endure any sort of hardship if he feels that he is doing so of his own volition. When forced to do something that he feels is unfair, or prohibited from doing something he feels has earned, such as turning pro when his talent allows, just about anyone will ponder ways to remedy that perceived injustice. If a person with that mindset is dropped into the fetid swamp that is college sports, he is presented with options to do just that on a daily basis, especially if he is talented enough to alter the trajectory of a program. Under the circumstances, it’s shocking that so few take the money — or at least that so few are caught.

One bit of good news in all of this is that the NBA’s move to strengthen its developmental league and make it easier for kids to use it as a way station between high school and the NBA. If nothing else, this means that kids who feel that a year in college is an unreasonable hindrance on their ability to earn a living will have an alternative. Some more dominos will fall before we understand how this will impact both pro and college ball, especially if the NBA revises the one and done rule. Now, at least, if a kid chooses to go to college, he will have done so freely.

We have reached the stage of this scandal where talking heads wax sanctimonious about how their wonderful sport has been besmirched. This feels like more than that. If you don’t root for one of the teams implicated in this scandal, chances are you root for a team that has lost a big game or recruit to one of them recently. You’re probably sitting there wondering what would have happened if things were contested fairly. If that happens often enough, folks start to lose interest, especially when it comes to spending their money. The sports landscape is littered with the carcasses of those who thought they had an infinite supply of credibility and found out otherwise, such as boxing, cycling, and track. College basketball could be next.

 

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