JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tony Benford is 55 and has been involved in college basketball for three decades, first as a player at Texas Tech, then as a typically itinerant assistant coach — New Mexico and Nebraska, Arizona State and Marquette, a basketball in one hand and a suitcase in the other. Friday, he took to a dais here to answer questions about the LSU team he now finds himself coaching — about the SEC, which the Tigers won; about Maryland, the Tigers’ opponent in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday; about the personnel the Tigers have.
“There’s no doubt they had an edge to them,” Benford said of his players, “because obviously they know the noise is out there.”
The noise. That’s quite a euphemism. Benford was answering these questions for one reason: LSU suspended his boss, Will Wade, because of reports by Yahoo and ESPN that detailed a federal wiretap of Wade speaking with a middleman who has been convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges. The key stenography: Wade, according to the reports, spoke of making a “strong-ass offer” to a player and his family in an effort to get him to agree to play for the ol’ purple and gold.
Oh, the sins of college athletics. Grab your varsity sweater and pompoms and come down to the soda fountain so we can gather round, talk about your favorite team and how unseemly it is to pay these full-time students, who must balance their books and their basketball, taking each equally seriously.
Please. Look, I love the NCAA tournament. I have for nearly 40 years. There was so much to think about in Thursday’s game between Maryland and Belmont — the fierce offensive rebounding of Maryland freshman Jalen Smith, the occasionally unconscious shooting of Belmont’s Dylan Windler, the little backdoor cuts designed by veteran Belmont coach Rick Byrd, the final steal by Maryland’s Darryl Morsell, which pushed the Terrapins into their matchup with LSU. That’s a lot to like.
“Just to be a part of a game like that yesterday where the atmosphere is terrific,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said before listing the elements he found compelling. Pick a random game from a random tournament site, and a random coach might be extolling the same virtues.
But it’s increasingly impossible to act as if basketball is at the center of all this. The noise is too loud. Wade’s absence is a central story line in the Maryland-LSU matchup. He was suspended March 8. He has refused to sit down with LSU and NCAA officials on the advice of his attorney, because he’s the subject of a criminal investigation. Yet he’s also pleaded for his job back.
It all sounds so sordid. But you know what? It doesn’t have to be. This argument is so old, it’s almost trite. And yet here it comes again: Pay the players.
There are those who still consider such a solution blasphemous, and that simply makes my head hurt. The NCAA has a deal with CBS and Turner to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament through 2032. The total tab, over 22 years: $19.8 billion. That’s billion with a “b.”
“There are very few premium sports properties that are available that can deliver for advertisers and for consumers,” David Levy, the president of Turner, said when the extension was consummated in 2016.
Just look at that language, cramming “properties” and “advertisers” and “consumers” all into one sentence. By the way, that sentence is about an “amateur” sporting event.
Yes, I know that scholarship athletes now receive stipends of a few thousand bucks to help lighten the load. But that television contract was negotiated on the open market. Shouldn’t there be some semblance of an open market for players, without whom there’s no television contract?
“I’m kind of on the fence on that,” Benford said. “I’m not leaning one way or the other. But I want to make sure we take care of the athletes.”
What a lovely thought, taking care of the athletes. Wade, by the way, was making $2.5 million annually. Turgeon is making $2.8 million this season. Oh, he also got $25,000 for guiding the Terps into the tourney. That win over Belmont? Another $30,000. Reach the Sweet 16 by beating LSU? Deposit $75,000 more.
Wade’s transgressions, if they indeed occurred, are his fault. But his contract isn’t. Turgeon’s contract — including the bonuses — isn’t his, either. That’s the market. We can wish it were different, but go back to the television exec talking about consumers and properties, and we’re not putting the toothpaste back in the tube.
Turgeon, for his part, said he has thought more about this issue in recent years. He said it’s something coaches discuss regularly.
“There’s a lot on these guys’ plates today,” Turgeon said. “Am I ready to go all the way over and say it’s time? No. But I think it’s something that we need to keep looking into.”
Despite Wade’s suspension, this FBI investigation — announced with so much fanfare in September 2017 — has hardly blown up college basketball. Yeah, Rick Pitino no longer coaches Louisville. But no other head coaches have lost their jobs. If college basketball was supposed to be shaken to its core, it ended up registering about a 1.0 on the Richter scale. Another trial awaits in April. Maybe everything will crumble then? Color me skeptical.
The athlete who is presumed to be at the center of Wade’s conversations with Christian Dawkins, the middleman convicted in the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation, is freshman guard Javonte Smart. The reason: The transcripts, according to Yahoo, quote Wade as addressing “the Smart thing.” LSU wondered enough about that portion of the reports that it held Smart out of the Tigers’ regular season finale against Vanderbilt.
“I didn’t feel I did nothing wrong,” Smart said here Friday. “So I just was waiting my time, just hoping I’d come back.”
On the morning of LSU’s SEC tournament debut against Florida, Smart was told he could play. Now, here’s this kid, playing on national television, part of the machine.
“I just stay in the gym and just don’t worry about the outsiders,” Smart said. “Just keep working. I just need to fight through it. I just try to block it out.”
For a teenager playing in a tournament in which everyone around him will be making money while he won’t be, blocking it out is understandable. What other choice does he have?
But for the people who run this sport, whether their salaries run to six or seven figures, blocking out the noise should be viewed as irresponsible. It shouldn’t take Will Wade’s suspension to remind us of that. Concentrate on the basketball Saturday, because that’s the fun part. But when the hero — be he Terrapin or Tiger — is identified, ask yourself whether a trip to Jacksonville for the weekend is fair compensation for competing in a “property” that delivers for both advertisers and consumers.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.