The Federal Bureau of Investigation is inside college basketball, meaning coaches around the country are nervous whether they’re about to be flipped on, a scandal that promises to change the sport even as nothing that’s been reported so far is surprising.
Arrests have been made, seven schools implicated so far and Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino fired in shame. More is expected. In practical terms, it’s a dirty look for the sport. Off-the-books payments coming to light are threatening on-the-books profits. Mess with a business’s bottom line, and you will see some action. Change is coming.
Eight coaches talked for this column. Three head college coaches, three assistants and two more from AAU programs. None expressed a drop of shock at hearing about payments from shoe companies to push recruits to specific schools.
“Oh, God no,” said one coach.
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“We use these kids and pump them up to gain benefit for the university or NCAA, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone when a parent or middle man wants a piece of the pie,” said another.
“They’re acting like they uncovered a mystery,” a third coach said of the FBI. “I read it and I’m like, ‘Are you (expletive) kidding me? That’s all they got?’”
One thing that came through in the conversations, though, was that the sport should and hopefully will use this as an opportunity to evolve. There are no easy fixes here, but the scandal is a result of human beings following the incentives put in place by competitive pressures and the NCAA’s rules.
Nothing can be done about the competitive pressures, but the rules need to be more realistic and pulled forward into the 21st century.
The responses to some common-sense solutions tell you so much about how difficult this will be.
The most obvious example is the adoption of the so-called Olympic model, which would allow athletes to make money on their likeness. Objectively, the market has decided some recruits are worth more than the NCAA’s outdated definition of amateurism allows.
If a shoe company believes a recruit is worth an investment of, say, $50,000, why should the NCAA be able to stand in the way?
Well, it goes back to the only thing that matters in any of this. Money.
Because if a kid does a deal with Adidas but signs to play at a Nike school then the school’s shoe contract is devalued.
“We’d want him in our shoe,” said one coach.
That may be ground the coaches have to cede, and realistically, in some cases they already have because of how deep shoe companies are in the world of recruiting.
The process starts in junior high in some cases, but the general rule of thumb is that shoe companies make contact with recruits a year or two before college coaches start with scholarship offers.
In most cases, the money is not paid directly to players or parents but through an AAU program. Shoe companies spend $200,000 or more on a single AAU team, but only if that team has an elite recruit.
When the college offers come in, the shoe companies start to spend that influence. None of the coaches who talked for this column say shoe companies blackball certain schools or force kids into others, but they don’t spend all that money without expecting something in return.
College basketball is full of coaches convinced they lost recruits because of this. For the very best recruits, a company may try to steer a kid to one of its programs with the promise — direct or implied — of a signature shoe when he goes pro.
“Just make sure we get him back,” a shoe rep may say to the college coach.
In this reality, if the NCAA’s rules are to be taken literally and strictly, there are no coaches with completely clean hands.
“All of us have done something,” one coach said. “You might turn your back so you don’t know everything, but you know what’s going on. It could be something as small as giving a kid a few bucks for dinner. I mean, come on. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
Somehow, the sport has to find a way to bridge the gap between the NCAA’s platonic ideal of amateurism and the shoe companies’ capitalistic reality.
Allowing athletes to make money on their likeness is the most logical place to start, in part because it wouldn’t violate Title IX. But that’s only a start.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has signaled that changes are coming to the league’s rule preventing high school kids from entering the draft. That would help, if for no other reason than removing the shoe companies’ biggest targets from NCAA restrictions. The best solution would be to allow the best prospects to directly enter the NBA, and require everyone else to play at least two or three years in college.
But more needs to be done. A partnership between USA Basketball and AAU — or, perhaps, USA Basketball replacing AAU — could both better monitor payments and improve the sport’s quality.
The NBA has always enjoyed using college basketball as its de facto minor league. The coaching and competition are good, the branding of future stars terrific, and the cost zero. Now, the league may be reconsidering that relationship, as signaled by its increasing investment and priorities to its developmental G League, including player salaries up to $250,000.
Another potential option would be allowing NBA teams to draft players and let them stay in college. Maybe a kid gets some of his first-year salary right away but is allowed to develop on a college campus. The NHL does something similar.
It’s naive to think cheating can ever be eliminated, because this involves humans and money and those interested in enforcing the rules can’t be everywhere. But this is a chance to make the rules more realistic, to improve the sport’s image, and made the industry better. The only things everyone agrees on is that change is coming, and change is necessary.
The FBI basically found versions of the plot of “Blue Chips,” which came out in 1994. Depending on how many coaches and middle men flip, the scope could increase and the fallout spread.
None of this is particularly surprising to anyone living in the sport. But it would be a shameful wasted opportunity if the only results are fired coaches, possible jail time and promotions for the investigators.
This is an opportunity to make the sport better, and more honest, to let go of some hypocrisy and delusion and instead embrace reality to move forward.