“Take a look at Zion. Why shouldn’t he play and get paid? It’s a cesspool — guys hustling kids, hustling dollars,” Vitale told Esquire in an interview published Monday. “Let me tell you this: We can solve that in a heartbeat. A kid like Zion, let him be allowed to get those dollars. He can make appearances. He can endorse a product. We got a tournament going on, and everyone’s making millions. Let those kids be able to benefit! It eliminates all that dirty stuff that goes on behind the scenes, and it’s there. Let’s face it. You’ve got coaches getting fired for taking bribes or to make believe and lie on an application that the kid’s an athlete. It’s a cesspool! And it’s just ridiculous and absurd.”
Vitale was referring to the admissions scandal in which the unqualified children of wealthy families gained entry to prestigious schools via unscrupulous maneuvering. The ESPN icon also focused on rules preventing talented teenage stars such as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James from bypassing college and going straight from high school to the NBA.
“If a kid wants to go to the NBA and that’s his dream, that’s his goal, and the NBA wants him, why not? Why do we make a kid go to school for a year or two?” he said in the interview. “And in many cases, you know, they don’t want to be there. The term ‘student-athlete’ becomes almost a joke. So let them go on and make their millions.”
Few people have seen more college hoops or been a bigger booster of the sport than Vitale, who will turn 80 in June and called his first college basketball game in 1979. His criticisms aside, his love of the NCAA tournament is rooted in its “one shining moment” tension. And that’s why Vitale also raged against this year’s bracket for not appropriately featuring smaller schools.
“I think that sometimes a little more judgment has to enter the picture, and I think it’s unfair for the little guy when we get 5 percent of the at-large berths for them,” he said on Sunday. “I don’t think that’s right, I don’t think it’s proper, and I will go to my grave screaming that, yelling that and believing that because the little guy gets shoved to the corner. Twenty-eight wins mean nothing. Mediocrity is already rewarded, it seems, over greatness. End of story. I’m done about it.”
That echoed what Vitale had asked for before the bracket was revealed, when he pleaded for teams such as Lipscomb and UNC Greensboro to receive at-large bids.
And he wasn’t done there. Among other things, Vitale wasn’t pleased to see Michigan State wind up as a No. 2 seed in the East along with Duke, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, while Michigan, which lost to MSU in the Big Ten Conference tournament title game, ended up a No. 2 seed in the more forgiving West.
“Michigan State won the Big Ten. What’s your reward? Duke,” Vitale said. “I think that was ridiculous and absurd. The committee has done a great job if you look toward the quad system and the net. . . . I thought Michigan State deserved a better, better situation.”
Vitale has all No. 1 or 2 seeds advancing to the Elite Eight, with two of the No. 1 seeds (Duke and Gonzaga) advancing to the Final Four. His winner? Duke.