Sam Mellinger

A gorgeous opportunity to help and be good — that college basketball appears ready to waste

KU’s Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman & Svi Mykhailiuk preview the season

KU backcourt players Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk talked about the Jayhawks upcoming season at Big 12 Media Day in the Sprint Center.
Up Next
KU backcourt players Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk talked about the Jayhawks upcoming season at Big 12 Media Day in the Sprint Center.

The people in charge of college basketball are robots to routine. They are largely incapable of innovation on their own, or of spotting opportunity to do anything other than protect their own paychecks, and if you don’t believe that you should listen to the Big 12 commissioner.

His name is Bob Bowlsby, and he’s a very impressive man. Truly. That’s not sarcastic, or the setup to a joke. He’s a former college wrestling champion with a masters degree who worked his way up in a competitive and lucrative business. Impressive man.

Impressive enough that he and the industry he represents should have a better response when asked about how charity exhibition games — like the one between Kansas and Missouri that raised at least $1.75 million for hurricane relief this week — could become annual events.

“I haven’t heard any momentum about making it a permanent waiver of the rule,” he said. “That would take a more substantial effort.”

Because who needs a no-cost, no-downside, unassailable promotion for business and simultaneous gift for charity?

Good grief. Is this real life?

Is a sport in desperate need of good publicity honestly, truly and seriously giving the chance at good publicity a dismissive wave of the hand, like some sovereign king presented with a plate of plain crackers?

Are the people in charge of this sport too dense to see this opportunity? Too timid to take advantage? Too arrogant and delusional to know they need it?

Perhaps the $1.75 million figure from Sunday’s game at Sprint Center can’t be duplicated. Maybe that number is inflated by KU and Mizzou going five years without playing, and by the energy around MU hoops from Michael Porter Jr.’s signing and Cuonzo Martin’s hiring.

So, let’s lowball the more “normal” figure at $1 million. That’s, um, a lot of money. That’s full tuition at KU, K-State, or Missouri for about 100 kids. That’s a quarter of the annual budget for Big Brothers Big Sisters. That’s more than the biggest annual fundraiser for Operation Breakthrough. That’s 3 million meals served through Harvesters.

This is the kind of good the sport should be running toward, not from. This is a multi-level, no-lose gift the sport should be adjusting rules for, not trying to think of every possible reason the current rules might not allow it.

Kansas coach Bill Self is a key figure in all of this. He’s a fresh Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, current president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and member of the sport’s oversight committee. He was the one who presented the idea of a charity exhibition game, an idea he originally took from his father.

He said he’d be open to more charity games in the future, but also walked through some of the NCAA’s inertia.

“It goes against their bylaws to say, ‘Hey, just go play another game,’” he said. “There has to be a reason. The reason was good. They said, ‘We could have many things going forward that could warrant this too, but we’re not going to give it a blanket thing to say men’s basketball can play a third exhibition game.’

“There’s a lot of things that need to be thought through on it. Like, where the money would go. Even though that seems simple, but could somebody use it for recruiting advantages, things like that.”

If this is the NCAA’s way of pumping the brakes until they have something more certain and ready for public consumption, then great. No rush. These games wouldn’t be played for another 51 weeks.

But there is little in college basketball’s culture or history to believe they will act on any of this without being pushed, which is strange, because this is a bit like having to push a kid to eat an ice cream cone.

At its best, college basketball’s appeal is undeniable. The world’s introduction to the next national stars. No sport lets fans watch a year-by-year growth of athletes in real time like college basketball. The NCAA Tournament is the best event in sports.

But, at the moment, most of the headlines are about an FBI investigation. That is an egregious case of misappropriated energy and manpower, the equivalent of a high school kid choosing the easiest essay topic to impress the teacher, but still. The consequences are real. Men inside the sport are being arrested, or fired, and with the FBI preying on investigation targets to flip.

Here is a chance for college basketball to mix in some positivity, and they’re talking about bylaws, and reaching for reasons not to do it. How many sports get in their own way as much as college basketball?

“I know there’s been concern about it creating an additional game,” Bowlsby said. “When there are those that do it for charity, everybody else gets in line just to do it as an opportunity to get another scrimmage in or another game.”

Oh come on.

This isn’t difficult.

This is an opportunity for college basketball to bring a lot of good to a lot of people, with, literally, no downside. Bowlsby can talk about “scheduling creep,” but that already happens. Schools already hold secret scrimmages, and besides, if you let everyone do it, who is at a disadvantage?

And are we really talking about whether playing an exhibition game in October is an unfair advantage in a sport determined by what happens in March?

Nothing in this country unites like sports. Nothing brings more people together who otherwise would never be together. Nothing engenders more excitement, more positive vibes, more pride.

This is college basketball’s opportunity to harness that in a beautiful way, to help so many in need and, selfishly, to bask in the reflected glory. Make it an annual event, and it becomes something people plan for, and budget for.

This is a chance for the sport to so clearly and tangibly help the communities where it is loved the most.

Or, you know. They could just continue to shrug, grunt something about bylaws, and continue to allow college basketball to be defined by FBI investigations.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger