Welcome to college basketball season, where we ponder who’s going to the Final Four and who’s going to prison.
September’s end brings media days and late-night practice pageantry to college basketball. But the head-spinning revelation Tuesday of a federal investigation that has charged 10 coaches, advisors and others with lying and using their influence to steer prospects to specific schools in a corruption scheme has unmoored the sport.
The fallout started Wednesday, when Louisville put coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich on leave, effectively firing them.
Auburn’s top recruit decommitted and the school offered to refund season tickets.
Those schools, along with a handful of others, were identified in the fraud charges, but the FBI warns the investigation is continuing and has set up a surrender and snitch hotline.
Area schools haven’t been identified, but who hasn’t wondered how blueblood Kansas or nouveau riche Missouri might be touched?
The day-after reaction ranged from former Kansas State star Michael Beasley’s told-you-so — “You guys are just catching on” — to some direct words from Jim Haney, executive director of the Kansas City-based National Association of Basketball Coaches.
“Tuesday’s allegations of recruiting improprieties across the college basketball landscape have shaken the game and the coaching profession to the core,” Haney said.
A much-needed shaking. The model for revenue-producing college sports shifted to the fast lane decades ago when television networks started showering dollars upon the NCAA Tournament in basketball and conferences and postseason in football.
Everybody got rich except the athletes generating the income. Money flows under the table to the players, their families, street agents, financial advisors, shoe reps — the industry created by the market imbalance.
In the FBI case, coaches and others in a position to influence the prospects conspired to commit bribery through college basketball programs at schools that receive federal funds.
Another way to look at it: taxpayers have funded the corruption.
They have for years. Rumors that one school outbid the other for a player are common. But proving it has been nearly impossible for the NCAA, which lacks subpoena power or the ability to level the threat of perjury. Schools under NCAA investigation have their own interests to protect.
The FBI has all the plays in the book — subpoena power, wiretapping, you name it — to make its case.
Less than two days in, we’ve only heard from the prosecutors and some of the schools that have taken action in response. At some point, attorneys for the defendants will be heard, and one argument will be that everybody does it. The influence/bribery business has been part of the college basketball recruiting landscape for decades.
This case won’t be resolved soon, but the topic will be as much a part of this season as Dick Vitale courtside.
Will it fundamentally change the college sports model and the argument over benefits for athletes? Those conversations have been occurring for years and have pushed progress toward upgrades to training tables, monthly scholarships, stipends and post-career medical insurance.
But athletes still don’t own the rights to their images, among other limitations to protect their amateur status.
Also, a rule outside of college basketball — the NBA Draft’s minimum age limit of 19 — contributes to the game’s toxicity. Before the rule was implemented in the mid-2000s, the top high school talent could skip college and advance directly to the NBA.
Now, top programs battle for that talent, which often remains in college for only one year. How could the process not invite corruption?
The NABC says its wants to be part of the solution.
“Should the progression of this case ultimately indicate a pressing need for reform within our sport,” the organization’s statement said, “the NABC will unquestionably be on the forefront of those efforts.”
No reason to wait. With coaches arrested, a Hall of Fame coach in Pitino fired and more news of bribes and kickbacks sure to come, reform measures should be considered immediately.
Clean it up.