We can’t, and won’t, make light of the feds slapping cuffs on college basketball coaches and the various hangers-on and interlopers who profit from the sport. But with practice set to officially open this week, anyone embracing the start of a new season must do so with his or her eyes wide open. Or maybe completely shut.
Tuesday’s developments are the essence of breaking news. On the face of them, they’re alarming — not so much because of the programs or coaches involved or the specifics of the transactions (though, $100,000?!) — but because this comes from the FBI, adding weight and heft. The idea of undercover videos in Las Vegas hotel rooms provides Hollywood intrigue, for sure.
But we have to understand, by now, that this is how college sports works. If you are a fan of a certain program, and you read these reports and scanned for violations by your precious Lions or Tigers or Bears, and — finding none — breathed a sigh of relief or, worse, felt the least bit sanctimonious, well, then, you’re in denial, and not a small bit of it.
There are likely clean major college athletics programs out there. Likely. But it’s also likely there were baseball players who didn’t take performance-enhancing drugs around the turn of this century. Saying with absolute certainty that a particular entity, though, is or was clean — that’s perilous, for sure.
Yet outright shock here? Really, there can’t be. The coaches arrested weren’t the head coaches at those programs, not Auburn’s Bruce Pearl or Arizona’s Sean Miller, not USC’s Andy Enfield or Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton — or, the biggest among them all, Rick Pitino of Louisville.
Pitino and his program, of course, are already on probation because a former director of basketball operations for the Cardinals lured prospective players with strippers and prostitutes. Being student-athletes, of course, they must have wedged these dalliances in between botany and statistics. And Pitino, of course, didn’t know, wouldn’t stand for such an arrangement! He’s a Hall of Famer, and that’s beneath him!
Yet whatever the feds announced Tuesday, Pitino won’t be on the Cardinals’ sideline for the first five games of the ACC season. Suspended, he is, for this previous isolated incident about which he had no knowledge.
The four assistant coaches arrested aren’t victims, for sure, because they surely knew what they were doing was against rules, if not laws. But they are part of a machine that is powered by the basic structure of college sports. When a system has billions of dollars flowing into it — and the NCAA’s contract with CBS and Turner Sports for the NCAA tournament alone is worth $8.8 billion through 2032 — and yet has a major part of the workforce that is unpaid, well, then, how is this not the end result?
Six years ago, Michael Beasley laid out much of how this works. The Prince George’s County kid was one of the most heralded recruits in the country back in 2006. He played one year at Kansas State (yep, nothing strange going on there) and then became the second pick in the NBA draft.
But in a lawsuit, Beasley showed how a former agent bankrolled his AAU basketball team so the coach of that team would push Beasley to that agency.
That’s what the feds were alleging Tuesday, even in cases where athletes and their families aren’t receiving $100,000. There’s so much money involved, someone’s going to get it. And unless and until players receive some sort of compensation that’s commensurate with their value to the school, there is going to be corruption. Sometimes it will violate NCAA rules. Sometimes it will violate the law.
Either way, given the current structure of college sports, we’re only minutes away from the next violation — whether it’s exposed or not. There is drama on Tuesday, for sure, and the more details we learn, the more damning it will feel to those individual coaches, to those individual programs. And yet, we know — despite the inevitable upcoming denials from all sorts of sources — it’s not just them.