Sunday, April 1, 2012


I like boxing but hate to admit it. It’s a brutal activity that offends just about everyone’s notions of civility and is saved only by the courage and skill of its best practitioners. Still, for the tingle of pure excitement, nothing beats the opening bell of a big fight. I attended many as a columnist, and miss the privilege of a ringside seat.

I feel pretty much the same about college sports, the annual climax of which—the NCAA basketball title game—tips off tomorrow (Monday) night. Yeah, the games are swell, and well worth watching, but their administration is so steeped in hypocrisy and corruption that the odor comes right through my television set and into my living room. That also was the case when I had a much-less-fancy TV than I do now.

Nothing makes that point better than the contrast between the parlous state of higher education in this land and the lavishness of the college-sports establishment. While states slash their support of public colleges and universities, and the resulting tuition increases turn a college education for most into a luxury supportable only by painful borrowing (total student-loan debt exceeds credit-card debt in the U.S.), schools pour ever-larger sums into new stadiums and athletics-support facilities. Nothing is too good for our jocks.

I thought the prevailing mindset on this issue was expressed nicely a few weeks ago when a member of the fine legislature of my home state of Arizona introduced a bill requiring every scholarship student at a state university to make a minimum tuition payment of $2,000 from his own or his parents’ pocket. The gentleman was quick to note, however, that holders of athletics scholarships would be exempt from the charge because their talents “help” their schools.

As exemplified by this season’s basketball Final Four, the nothing-is-too-good rule goes double for big-time college head coaches; according to USA Today the combined annual salaries of the four schools’ sideline bosses total $17.6 million, or, probably, more than that of the entire engineering faculties of the institutions involved. Louisville’s Rick Pitino heads the list at $7.5 million a year, a sum which, as far I can tell, exceeds the salary of any NBA coach now that Phil Jackson has retired. Kentucky’s John Calipari is next at $3.9 million, and Kansas’s Bill Self is close behind him at $3.6 million. Thad Matta of Ohio State makes a paltry $2.6 million, but I’m sure he’ll get a raise soon.

It would be good to report that the above-named gentlemen are moral exemplars who are a credit to their schools, parents and race. Hah! Calipari heads just about everyone’s all-sleaze list, with Pitino close behind. The jury remains out on Self and Motta, as it does on just about every other college coach at their level of pay and accomplishment.

Calipari’s rep is based mostly on the fact that he’s the only coach to have had the NCAA vacate the records (and take back the trophies) of two Final Four teams he guided—Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008. UMass was whacked after it was revealed that its star center, Marcus Camby, received about $40,000 in cash and gifts from an agent while he was a so-called student-athlete. Memphis got it because Derrick Rose, the freshman leader of its 2008 national runnerup, got into the school because someone else took his college-entrance exam.

Calipari, of course, maintained that he’d been ignorant of those misdeeds. The NCAA chose to believe him despite the fact that coaches of his ilk know what each of their players eat for breakfast every morning. That’s why they call the cartel the No Consequences Athletics Association.

Indeed, Calipari’s career has sailed right along no matter what ethical icebergs he’s banged into, culminating in 2009 in the UK job, reputed to be the best in academe. He’s so far escaped formal obloquy there, but not for lack of trying. Eric Bledsoe, the star freshman guard of his first Kentucky team, left school for the pros after an examination of his high-school records revealed evidence that his grades had been altered to meet college standards. Then the coach tried to get Enes Kanter, a Turkish seven-footer, cleared to play at UK despite Kanter having been paid more than $100,000 to perform for a season at a top-tier professional team in his homeland. Calipari lost that one, and Kanter took the next-best offer, with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

Fact is, though, that the young Turk spent only one year fewer in college than have many other Calipari recruits. He’s the master of the one-and-done, the cup-of-coffee college stay for the highly talented dictated by a 2005 NBA decision to deny employment to kids until they turn 19 years of age and are a year out of high school. Four members of Calipari’s first Kentucky team escaped to the pros after taking this academically dubious path, as did two of his second. A few from this team probably will, too.

Louisville’s Pitino made his early mark on his sport with his Armani suits and have-whistle-will-travel portfolio that had him flitting at short intervals between the colleges and the pros. His notion of allegiance is best illustrated by his signing with Louisville in 2001 after having led UK against the school in one of college hoops’ bitterest rivalries.

Pitino gained tabloid fame a couple years back when a woman who would marry and divorce his team’s equipment manager (!) claimed Pitino had raped her. The married father of five admitted to having had consensual sexual with the lady, and giving her $3,000 for “health insurance” (she said it was for an abortion), but that was it. The episode came to light when the woman was arrested and later convicted for using the episode to try to shake down Pitino for further funds. He came off as the victim, and not only has survived as a leader of young men, but also has prospered.

Matta’s Ohio State basketballers have been OK with the NCAA but the school’s football team recently was ensnared in scandal. Typically, the NCAA focused on the trivial benefits (tattoos) Buckeye football players got from a booster while ignoring the fact the guy was a drug dealer and his Columbus tattoo parlor was their social club. If a lot of gridders found the place maybe a few cagers did, too, huh?

Kansas under Self has prospered by recruiting from yon rather than from hither. The current 15-man Jayhawks’ roster contains only two Kansans. They sit on the bench while kids from Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington D.C. perform. Did those youngsters seek out the bright lights of Lawrence, Kas., only because of Self’s cute smile? Just asking.

So enjoy tomorrow night’s finale, but don’t forget the clothes pin for your nose. If you don’t have a clothes pin a big paper clip will do. I’ve used both.


Dave W. said...

I hate basketball. Probably because I never understood it. As a kid playing pickup games it seemed everybody just ran around and the talented guys would shoot. It's become such a physical game now I would have gotten knocked around. And basketball fans are the rudest I've seen in any USA sport. When did it become classy to jump around yelling epithets when the visiting team has the ball and handing out items to harass the foul shooters?

Mike Levy said...

Makes you kinda wish for the return to the days of Darryl Dawkins, who went directly from high school in Olando, into the pros. Why take up good classroom space?

By the way, just like Dave W. said, I too hate basketball. If I had my way, there'd be one national tournament with teams paired to play a two minute game. That's what basketball is generally about...the last two boring minutes. That tournament could be held on one day at one site and would comprise the entire year's schedule of all games. Enough said!