It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the entirety of big-time intercollegiate athletics is in the most serious mess since President Teddy Roosevelt ordered that college football players stop killing each other.
Following an FBI investigation that resulted in the September indictments of 10 men’s college basketball figures in a bribery and fraud scheme among college programs, top recruits, financial planners and shoe/apparel powerhouse adidas, there came news this week of potentially more widespread casualties.
Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports reported — the story is here — that evidence to be presented in discovery during the pending criminal trials involving assistant coaches who allegedly broke laws and rules at Auburn, Arizona, USC and Oklahoma State, could include accusations against more big-name coaches, top lottery draft picks and programs.
If true, the scandal will deliver a major blow to revenues the NCAA passes on to fund non-revenue sports at most major universities. Consequences are not confined to handfuls of miscreant coaches and players in one sport.
The story said the exposure of college hoops’ sordid underbelly comes in part from wiretaps from more than 4,000 intercepted calls and thousands of documents and bank records obtained from raids and confiscated computers, including those from notorious NBA agent Andy Miller, a central figure in the scandal. He’s the agent for New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis and has represented former pro stars such as Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups.
A source familiar with the case’s details told Thamel: “This goes a lot deeper in college basketball than four corrupt assistant coaches. When this all comes out, Hall of Fame coaches should be scared, lottery picks won’t be eligible to play and almost half of the 16 teams the NCAA showed on its initial NCAA tournament show (on CBS the past weekend) should worry about their appearance being vacated.”
The NCAA, led by former University of Washington president Mark Emmert, largely has been involved in the case as a scared-spitless witness compelled to cooperate with the feds to clean up an industry that for more than half a century has failed to regulate its member institutions.
Some of what the FBI discloses in discovery may not be criminal, but will be violations of NCAA rules. So the NCAA will be publicly shamed into bringing down some of its most celebrated institutions and people.
Aside from from the allegations, the perps, and the length and breadth of potential damage to the big-time college sports industry and its sponsors and media collaborators, there is one part of the narrative that has always been incontrovertible:
For decades, the business of college sports has spent huge resources defending the indefensible in a capitalist society: Amateurism.
The century-long practice of severely under-compensating a labor force to sustain an enterprise that allows coaches, universities, sponsors and networks to make millions would be a human-rights scandal if we as a sports nation weren’t so thrilled and amused by the game’s antics. Especially when it comes to the gambling behemoth of March Madness.
Outside of North Korea and a few other remaining relics of Stalinism, no place would put up with such nonsense.
To maintain it, the NCAA has constructed a fence around its athletes of Rube-Goldberg-caliber complexity, covered by a thin fig-leaf called “student-athletes,” as if the label were some sacrosanct achievement of noble purpose, instead of representing an exploitation of powerless kids.
Because this is a federal investigation with subpoena power and the ability to jail those found guilty, we have for the first time an independent legal way to expose the foundational hypocrisy and corruption of big-time college sports.
Everyone involved knew this day was coming.
In 2000, James J. Duderstadt, former University of Michigan president, wrote a book: Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University. Here is the opening paragraph of the preface:
There is an old saying among college presidents that the modern university might be viewed as a fragile academic enterprise, delicately balanced between the medical center at one end of the campus and the athletic department at the other. The former can threaten the institution financially; the latter puts at risk the university’s integrity, reputation and academic priorities.
Dude nailed it.
If the federal allegations prove true, along with evidence presented during pre-trial hearings that reveal violations of NCAA rules, the outcome will underscore Duderstadt’s point about fragility.
The potential chaos will undercut the cash underpinnings of sports to the point where many universities, already running athletics-department deficits and fighting a losing battle with technology that provides education and degrees online, will be in severe financial jeopardy.
But there is a solution. It, too, has always been there:
Complete professionalization of the revenue sports.
Professional leagues in college football and men’s basketball can rent from the schools the names, mascots, facilities and reputations. The fees must be sufficient to underwrite the university’s expenses of non-revenue sports to comply with Title IX. That means that Nick Saban, Rick Pitino, Chris Petersen and Mike Hopkins and all their bosses and assistants are in for haircuts. But nothing they won’t survive.
As they do with hospitals that serve the public, universities can create a separate commercial enterprise. Call it Public Entertainment, and offer athletes reasonable wages, health insurance, ability to earn endorsement contracts, and provide internships in which they can take life-skills classes and pursue academic courses as their time and interests permit, with no attendance or graduation obligation.
End of agents, shoe companies, runners and crooked coaches sneaking and snickering past the NCAA, the institutional successor to Inspector Clouseau.
Is it doable? Of course. All the schools have to do is act like every other business and pass on the additional costs to consumers.
That means you and I will pay for most of it. To end the hypocrisy, fraudulence, corruption and general bullshit of big-time college sports, any price is cheap.
If we want the thrills of one-handed touchdown grabs and three-point buzzer-beaters that make us feel good about old Wossamatta U, I see no reason not to fund it.
Besides, the FBI these days has more important things to do.