If you put earplugs in and blinders on, that can be your world, a world in which a kid you’ve never heard of playing for a school you couldn’t locate matters, and matters intensely. Toss in a bracket and a wager, and voila — so much fun.
The problem is: The moment doesn’t last. And when it fades, the reality of college sports is what’s left, laid bare. It’s March, and it’s ugly.
“It’s a horrible time for the game,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said late last month.
The NCAA tournament field will be announced Sunday night. I used to think of this as Christmas morning. But only those among us who are experts at compartmentalization will be able to look at the bracket and think only of on-court matchups, of which 12th seed might beat what 5.
This March, the letters F-B-I are as important as N-C-A-A, and it shouldn’t be that way.
Don’t let the federal investigation into college basketball’s inner workings distract from the primary issue here. It’s not about which coach called what prospective star to pay how much money. It’s that those calls happened in secrecy, that they had to be tapped by authorities, that the sport has what is so commonly referred to as an “underbelly.”
Why not make the underbelly an exoskeleton? Those calls should be made freely: You are worth $X, so I will pay you $X. Now, let’s make sure we notify the correct authorities.
And yet that’s not the system. So we have a March in which federal authorities could make more news than full-court presses.
It has to change, doesn’t it? Not by getting assistant coaches to stop their routine offers of money to players and/or their families. But by making sure those players and their families get money above board. The FBI’s case — which Yahoo Sports has helped flesh out — reportedly touches, in ways large and small, the most prominent programs in the country. But look at some of those allegations — $400 for the parent of a Michigan State player, a restaurant tab for the parents of a player who ended up at Duke — and it’s silly we’re even talking about it.
Don’t think for one minute this investigation isn’t tied to the ridiculous pillars we have propped up for generations: the idea that a scholarship and some meal money and, finally, a small stipend is enough to pay back players who generate billions-with-a-b in revenue for their schools. We know that the NCAA has a contract with CBS and Turner to carry the NCAA tournament — just the tournament — that covers 22 years and is worth $19.8 billion.
If there’s that much money, and you don’t pay the workforce, an underbelly is inevitable.
“The fact of the matter is that when you artificially sublimate the unpaid labor and don’t give them a fair share and force all the money to a small cohort of the population — the coaches and the administrators and the apparel companies and the television networks — a black market is going to take place,” said Zach Bohannon, a former basketball player at the University of Wisconsin. “This black market is being shown now, in public. But it was already there. There’s an imbalance there that the NCAA doesn’t want the public to know.”
We’re at the point when it’s hard to watch college basketball and see only a pick and roll and how it’s defended or a zone defense and how it might be exploited. Watch the conference tournaments this week. On the sideline, the camera will inevitably pan to a coach. You know how many coaches, according to an essential database published by USA Today, make at least $2 million annually? Try 47. Forty-seven.
This model isn’t sustainable. It’s actually remarkable it has lasted this long, because it’s antiquated, plain and simple. The kids who arrive on campus to play NCAA basketball aren’t hoping to get to practice in time once they have finished their studies. They’re not dreaming of stitching that varsity letter to their cardigan. They are financial engines.
“It’s disgusting,” Bohannon said by phone Monday.
Maybe a special commission on college basketball, chaired by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, will announce meaningful recommendations at some point this spring. Maybe. Until then, it’s instructive to remember that Bohannon and his then-Wisconsin teammate Nigel Hayes became the faces of the argument that this is an inherently unfair system. They didn’t do so at the behest of the NCAA. They did so on their own.
In 2014, Bohannon was a senior, an Iowa kid who transferred from the Air Force Academy — where he had three full-time jobs: student, basketball player and cadet — and began thinking critically about his role in the college athletics machine. Hayes was the highly sought freshman who came from Ohio and helped push the Badgers to the Final Four. One sought the other’s playing time. Still, they found common ground.
“People say we’re advocating for ‘pay-for-play,’ ” Bohannon said. Nope. That’s a label the NCAA-types push because it carries a negative connotation. Try rephrasing. “We’re advocating for our fair share.”
Hayes, who is now in the NBA’s development league, ended up standing in the background of ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast from Madison wearing a sign that read, “Broke college athlete. Anything helps,” and listing a Venmo address at which he might receive money. Together, Bohannon and Hayes pushed the conversation further, to places that made the stodgy forces that run college athletics uncomfortable.
Given all that, Bohannon seems as reasonable a person as any to turn to for a solution.
“I think, ultimately, it’s going to have to come down on the players,” Bohannon said, “something like a boycott or a unionization.”
Let’s brainstorm. What if, say, the players at Kansas or North Carolina or Virginia took their warmups before their conference tournament games this week, went back to the locker room — and then refused to report for the tip-off?
“That can’t happen yet,” Bohannon said. “What I’ve found out is the public perception’s not there yet.”
So we’re left to wonder, as college basketball enters its best month in its worst shape, when public perception will get there. I keep thinking that, at some point, the idea of not paying college athletes in revenue-generating sports will seem as outdated as prohibition. It’s not just. So it will be fixed.
Except waiting hasn’t proved to work. Someone, something, needs to force change. Maybe it’s the FBI investigation that has the college sports world spooked. Maybe, instead, that investigation should be embraced. Maybe the only way to watch college basketball this month isn’t with the earplugs in and the blinders on, but understanding that a sport that’s in desperate need of change may soon be forced into it. If that happened, it would outshine any buzzer beater as the indelible moment of this month.