My dictionary defines the word scandal as “an action or event regarded as morally wrong that causes general public outrage,” but one has to strain to see those elements in the latest college-sports episode involving the arrests of 10 men accused of running a ring to bribe basketball recruits. At best, the moral part of the question is, uh, questionable, and the outrage has been muted if there’s been any at all. As has become increasingly clear to anyone who’s been paying attention, it simply describes business as usual in an enterprise that rivals few in this land for corruption and hypocrisy.
I and others have been railing for years (decades!) about the failings of college sports, to no avail. They only get worse as the money pot grows and our institutions of higher learning twist themselves out of shape to grab their share of it. Coaches and administrators turn blind eyes to the offenses going on under their noses and lie about their knowledge when they’re exposed. It’s part of their jobs.
The main victims are the so-called student-athletes who fuel the beast and, mostly, are discarded when they’re of no further use. The joke in communist Russia was that the people pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them. In college sports the athletes pretend to go to school and the schools pretend to graduate them.
What’s different about the current matter is its scope and specificity. Scooped up in a federal probe announced last Tuesday in New York were assistant coaches at four top-flight hoops schools—Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Southern California-- two employees of the international shoe company Adidas, two financial advisers, a players’ agent and (!) a custom tailor. Making a long story short, it’s alleged that Adidas and the other business types funneled money to the coaches to pay basketball prospects to attend their schools and, later, turn their representation over to them when (if) they turned pro. I’m really interested to know how the tailor figured into this. Are new suits that expensive these days?
Prosecutors said the three-year FBI investigation that led to the charges is continuing and that their net probably would widen in the weeks ahead. That was clear from the inclusion in the arrest documents of two more schools that were described but not named, but were named later as the U’s of Louisville and Miami. It was alleged that basketball prospects or their families received upwards of $100,000 each from Adidas, et al, to enroll there. Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach with a long and sordid rap sheet, was placed on “administrative leave” by the school on Wednesday, so there should be more from that quarter. It also was reported that employees of Nike, another big shoe company, have been subpoenaed, opening another avenue of inquiry.
Legally speaking this is serious stuff, with violations of U.S. bribery, conspiracy, honest-services fraud and wire-fraud statutes involved. One piece I read said that if convicted of all charges the coaches could face maximum sentences of 80 years in prison. For men in their 40s or 50s, as the coaches seem to be, those are life sentences, the fed-max they’d get for murder. If nothing else that should encourage them to make nice with the prosecutors as the case unfolds.
Really, though, it should be asked who the immediate victims are. They certainly don’t seem to be the willing companies, which regard the bribes as seed money. The public universities for which the coaches worked also deserve no pity because their athletics-first practices created the situation that nurtured the mess. In Arizona, where I live, legislative penury long has starved public higher education, causing tuition at Arizona State University to more than triple in the last 15 years, but the school still has found $300 million to renovate its football stadium.
One of the prosecutors interviewed on TV likened the accused conspirators to a pack of coyotes yipping and nipping at befuddled recruits, but the comparison rang false. That gang didn’t want to eat the kids, it wanted to take them out to dinner, and who could blame them for accepting? Remember that an athlete taking money to attend a college might violate NCAA rules but it ain’t against the law. A stigma may attach but basketballers Chris Webber and Marcus Camby and football player Reggie Bush took illicit money and went on to have lucrative pro careers, with all attendant honors.
The idea that big-time college basketball and football recruiting involves only the kids and their parents, and maybe a high-school coach, is way out of date. Today the scene is a swamp in which agents’ runners, “street” agents, club-team coaches and their sponsors (mainly the shoe companies) and all sorts of hangers on also swim, and the coach that can’t navigate it doesn’t last long. Word travels fast in that milieu and exchanges of money don’t stay secret long.
The probe is sure to enliven the “just pay ‘em” crowd, which believes that salaries for college athletes would solve all problems. I don’t buy that on a number of grounds. Making the kids employees would further devalue whatever the educational side of their scholarships is worth, and if $100,000 is the going rate to rent a blue-chip hoops recruit for a year or two, the price tag would be very high. Too, making people richer doesn’t make them less greedy, so under-the-table deals would continue. One of the assistant coaches named in the action, Chuck Person of Auburn, had a 14-season NBA career (1987-2001) in which he earned about $23 million, and his Auburn salary was reported at $240,000 a year, so he’s hardly on the dole.
American college sports are like such other corrupt enterprises as the Olympics and international soccer in that they are inundated with money and poorly prepared to deal with it, either philosophically or organizationally. Billions of dollars are raining in from TV-rights sales, gate receipts and shoe-company largess, and plenty of people have their hands out to get some of it, one way or another.
Surveying the perennially graft-ridden Chicago political scene, the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote that instead of “Urbs in Horto” (meaning “City in a Garden”) Chicago’s Latin motto should be “Ubi Est Mea?”, for “Where’s Mine?” The same goes for our college sports.