The Justice Department complaint that rocked college basketball is filled with preposterously long sentences and is generally dryer than Ernest Hemingway’s throat in the morning. But somewhere in there is the biggest joke in all of sports.
These criminals, we are told, “defrauded” the universities that employed them.
This may turn out to be legally accurate, but it is also utterly laughable. These schools—apparently Arizona, Louisville, Auburn, Oklahoma State, USC and Miami—are not victims. They are perpetrators. They have created an environment and athletic culture with two priorities: winning and bringing in money. Of course people illegally funnel money to people who can help them win.
The University of Louisville was not defrauded. It got exactly what it wanted, what it paid for, what it represented and what it deserved. This is a school that hired Bobby Petrino twice and stood by Rick Pitino when his basketball program hired hookers to entice high school students to go there. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich created an athletic powerhouse. That was his job. Very few people seemed to care how he did it.
Auburn was not defrauded. Auburn’s recent history includes rampant academic fraud and hiring basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who lied about committing NCAA violations at Tennessee, before Pearl’s show-cause penalty expired. Auburn’s core values have been quite clear. At the top of the list is “Please, God, let us beat Alabama.”
The schools were supposedly “defrauded” because these dastardly assistant coaches broke NCAA rules, then filled out forms certifying that they never did. The forms are another joke. Nearly everybody in college sports must fill them out, and I am still searching for anybody in history who used them to confess to anything. They’re just a cover for the schools.
If crimes were committed in this case, then of course people should be prosecuted. I get it. And if coaches took bribes to steer athletes to certain financial advisors without the players knowing, then they should never coach again. But as far as “defrauding” the universities … well, this is like nailing the accountant who defrauded Al Capone. Let’s be honest about who is in charge.
The big story here for a lot of people is Pitino, Louisville’s Hall of Fame coach. If the Justice Department is right, he should be fired and never paid another dime by Louisville. That is the obvious take for everybody outside the Louisville bubble of delusion. But Louisville is merely the most brazen cheater in an industry that is overflowing with them.
Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson was just arrested for taking bribes and paying a recruit to go to Tucson. Let’s watch what Arizona does with head coach Sean Miller, who may have the best team in the country this season. I’m calling Vegas to see if I can place a $1,000 bet on “rogue assistant.”
The story laid out Tuesday is a familiar story to almost everybody in college basketball: sneaker companies and agents conspire with coaches to pay players to attend certain schools. It’s a flagrant violation of NCAA rules and unfair to those who follow them. But everybody involved gets what they want out of the deal.
Sneaker companies get a star to wear their shoes and uniforms. Investing $100,000 in a five-star basketball recruit for a single college season is nothing compared to what those companies pay NBA stars.
Agents (or financial advisors) get clients, eventually—and a return on their initial investment.
Players get paid to pay college sports, as they believe they should be.
Coaches get to win, and they get to keep their jobs—or get better ones.
And schools get the two things they wanted all along: victories and revenue.
All around the country, chancellors and presidents convince themselves they have the moral high ground. They generally don’t. How many head coaches get fired for winning with a lousy academic performance? How many assistant coaches are rewarded for being whistleblowers? How many five-star athletes are rejected by admissions departments?
If you have covered the sport at all in the last 10 years, you have probably heard some version of these sentences:
“He’s going to a Nike/adidas/Under Armour school.”
“We didn’t even bother recruiting him.”
“(School) is involved, so you know what that means.”
“The uncle is running this thing.”
This is how many (though not all) major schools operate. The big surprise in college basketball offices around the country Tuesday is that people got caught. And no, it’s probably not over. I can think of one adidas-sponsored school in particular that was not implicated in the report but should probably start hiring outside counsel anyway.
This is how the sport operates. It’s not universal. Saying “everybody cheats” is intellectually lazy. There are a lot of good people in college basketball who really do care about following rules and players getting an education. But the sport basically operates on the honor system. If you want to cheat, then cheat. The only reason this scandal blew up is that the government got involved.
I bet that a lot of coaches who committed these violations did not even realize their actions were against the law. They thought they were merely breaking NCAA rules, just like their employers wanted, even if they won’t admit it.