The sky is neither falling nor clearing despite competing claims to the contrary. In fact, it’s too early to gauge the likely effects or extent of last week’s indictments of 10 men involved in bribery and fraud to secure the services of college basketball players.
Other than details that, for all their shock value, remain allegations, what we learned from the investigation announced by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York was hardly surprising. Surely it’s no revelation that payoffs in the modern game are more closely related to corporate interests than to more traditional organized crime, as in the days more than a half-century ago when Frank Hogan, another prosecutor from New York, revealed widespread point-shaving that led to abolition of Raleigh’s Dixie Classic.
The under-the-table maneuvering uncovered this time by the FBI could be reduced by openly compensating athletes, if only with post-college trust funds, for their participation in what used to be called “revenue-producing” sports. The NCAA stoutly resists that approach, creating a climate for corruption. A move toward fairness like permitting youngsters to affiliate with licensed agents likewise might undercut the talent black market, but the NCAA routinely rejects allowing eligible football and basketball players to hire professionals to represent them.
Those who yearn for reform of big-time college sports see a turning point in this latest battery of charges. To them the case offers a chance for resetting a system so contorted by compromise and hypocrisy, so clearly at odds with its professed embrace of amateurism and the protection of athletes that most any transgression appears both possible and forgivable.
That ambiguity was reflected in the continued employment of Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, one of the game’s great oaks who led teams to 770 victories and two NCAA titles despite an apparently hollowed ethical core. Pitino, paid an industry-leading $7.7 million per year by Louisville, previously survived an NCAA crackdown for providing improper benefits as an assistant at Hawaii, a sex scandal involving the wife of a fellow Louisville athletic staffer and a 2017 NCAA probation centered on providing sexual favors for Cardinals recruits.
The current federal investigation pinpointed a $100,000 payment to the family of a top recruit Pitino signed in June, leading the school to finally jettison the coach. Tom Jurich, Pitino’s longtime apologist and the nation’s highest-paid athletic director, is reportedly out the door too.
Earlier this year Pitino, professing innocence, blamed a misguided assistant coach for providing strippers and prostitutes to prospects. The assertion fell flat; the NCAA recently changed its rules to hold a head coach accountable for the actions of subordinates. Compartmentalizing cheating schemes to limit fallout to assistants, usually young and frequently black, is one of the oldest dodges in the cheater’s playbook.
Four assistants at four schools were indicted last week. Head coaches whose programs are implicated in the FBI probe now must wonder how prosecutors, school administrators and NCAA officials will view their complicity, however indirect. That could bode ill for several well-regarded men with ACC ties: Miami’s Jim Larranaga and Arizona’s Sean Miller, formerly an N.C. State assistant.
By and large, college officials and others in amateur sports want only the best for the young people with whom they work. But when they see cheating, they stick to their own lane, restricting their grumbling to private conversations. They’ve seen that, on the rare occasions someone publicly fingers another program to authorities or the media, the accuser engenders as much distrust as praise. The safest way to survive while swimming in sewage is to keep your head high and your mouth shut.
Rooting out malfeasance in college athletics is then left either to muckrakers or to authorities with a reach circumscribed by a much-noted lack of subpoena power. NCAA investigators can’t compel testimony the way a government-sanctioned attorney can, limiting enforcement and lending NCAA findings a patina of arbitrariness under the best of circumstances.
I think this is a great way to show the weakness of the NCAA enforcement system.
Todd Turner, an athletics consultant and former AD at four schools, including N.C. State, on college basketball scandal
“I think this is a great way to show the weakness of the NCAA enforcement system,” Todd Turner, an athletics consultant and former AD at four schools, including N.C. State, says of the U.S. Attorney’s case. Turner is among advocates of strengthening the NCAA’s investigative process and making it as independent as possible. “It may be a burden lifted off their shoulders,” he says hopefully.
Unfortunately, other attractive routes to reform quickly confront the interests of athletic shoe and apparel companies such as adidas, identified as central to the newly revealed federal criminal charges.
Nike, adidas and Under Armour each sponsor leagues that primarily operate outside NCAA and high school regulation, lavishing head-turning travel, swag and attention on teenagers removed from familiar support structures. Keeping college coaches and perhaps players out of subsidized gyms during basketball’s wide-open summer AAU circuit would reduce opportunities for influence-peddling. A ban on sneaker-sponsored activities also might lessen the pervasive me-first player attitudes decried by college coaches.
The rub is that closing this favored avenue to courting tomorrow’s NBA stars runs counter to corporate strategies intimately tied to high-profile athletic programs. Coincidentally, just last month Louisville announced a 10-year sponsorship arrangement with adidas for $16 million annually. That compares favorably with the $23.8 million average payout to ACC schools in 2016 as a benefit of conference membership.
There’s no doubt changes, some totally unanticipated, will arise from this latest college basketball scandal. “I think a lot of things need to be revamped, and this is a great time to do it,” says Bobby Cremins. Now a member of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions, the former Georgia Tech coach advocates a ban on summer recruiting at high-profile, shoe-sponsored camps and an end to the early signing period altogether.
Optimists expect systemic improvements in the wake of the Scandal of ’17, from fairer treatment for athletes to heightened integrity off and on court and field. Skeptics – or are they realists? – foresee a few high-profile fall guys, much talk of reform, and modest change. Similarly muted outcomes customarily follow most of our major corporate, political or intercollegiate scandals. After all, there’s always another plea bargain, heart-tugging excuse or comeback just around the corner.