BY Art Thiel 03:35PM 02/16/2018

Thiel: Hoops scandal imperils all NCAA sports

A new report discloses that the FBI’s case against men’s college basketball will take down many more programs and people. The answer? Professionalize.

NCAA president Mark Emmert probably wishes he was back at the University of Washington. / biglead.com

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.

Here’s how:

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.


YourThoughts

  • Effzee

    But what are those poor folks in Alabama gonna do without Saban and their big time football program? I wonder if the proposals for allowing transfers with immediate eligibility are tied to this? These smarmy heathens are never not thinking 10 steps ahead. The cheatin’ will continue somehow.

    • art thiel

      The pressure is growing, and the transfer-rule change is one response to the demand for athlete equity in the industry. But it doesn’t address the defense of amateurism.

  • DAWG

    Thank you, Art Thiel ! Professionalism or semi professional status must be achieved for both Dvision I football and basketball. It’s over or should be. The train left the station decades ago, and it would be fitting that legal action moves the Universities and NCAA to acknowledge the obvious. Resistance is futile, but boy oh boy did they try !

    • art thiel

      It took the FBI to pluck this low-hanging fruit for some to realize that the hypocrisy is intolerable. I hope the scandal takes down premier coaches and schools to hasten the demise of the current system.

      • Theyfinallyfiredcable

        So assuming Romar ran a squeaky tight program that whole time 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.” – you’re saying maybe we still have a chance to dance after 3 losses in a row ?!

        .. just trying to find the silver lining here : ) They better win tonight . GO DAWGS !

        • art thiel

          You’ll find more silver in your coin drawer.

        • Husky73

          That may be the reason Romar is at Arizona.

  • ll9956

    “Wossamatta U”. That ranks among your best, Art. It earns a tip o’ the hat for sure.

    On a more serious note, it would seem that the corrupt ones in high places at the latter institution(s) will soon get their comeuppances.

    • Effzee

      If the FBI would focus on the Clintons and Bushes of the world, we’d really be getting somewhere.

      • art thiel

        They gave free shoes to kids?

        • Effzee

          No, they are better at taking things away from kids. Like funding for public schools, for example.

          I love how they say things like “Hillary Clinton believes that every child, no matter his or her background, should be guaranteed a high-quality education. That’s why she has been working to improve and support our public schools for decades…”

          Oh, really? So she’s proud of her decades of work resulting in the US being ranked 17th in education in the world? ;-p

          • art thiel

            Pull up, Effzee. Ground’s coming up fast.

      • Husky73

        Gawd, I am so very, very tired of that post.

    • art thiel

      I must offer credit where due. The literary giants who created “Bullwinkle” coined the term. I steal only from the best.

      Regarding corruption, it’s the entire system that enables the cheating to go on. It’s the same rationale that kept the Southern whites arguing for slavery: How will we keep the plantation if slaves don’t pick the cotton?

  • Wheezy

    I love these types of articles, Art. Ones that make us stop and think for a bit. That said, I’m all hopped up on cold medicine so I hope my response makes sense.

    Many are fed up with the hypocrisy and exploitation of the NCAA. Some form of professionalism for college athletics is worth discussion. The antiquated idea that the scholarship is the *elite* athlete’s payment is silly. We are firmly in the era of “one-and-done” and we aren’t going back. There’s too much money at stake for these kids who can actually turn pro. Injuries and Father Time weigh heavily.

    But the vast majority of NCAA athletes will never see a paycheck for putting on a jock strap and lacing ‘em up. For that stratum, the scholarship is arguably their payment. Those are the seniors that get a few minutes of junk time, and the crowd goes wild when they score a bucket. Unlikely to turn pro, but good enough to get a scholarship.

    My concern with blanket professionalism is that the money will concentrate in a very small group of schools, focused on a very small group of athletes, squeezing out schools that have long traditions and loyal fan bases, simply because they couldn’t compete financially.

    Baseball has the minor leagues. Basketball has kind of a similar alternative with leagues overseas and the NBA D league. Kids that want to pursue a pro career, but not biology…there you go. But what about football? It’s an expensive gladiator sport, with no player development alternatives other than college and the goofy “scholarship is your payment” model.

    It’s complicated. It made me use the term “stratum”. I’m making another Red Russian (NyQuil and vodka) and going back to bed.

    • art thiel

      You did well for being in an altered state.

      My notion is to set up two tiers of athletes: Professional and scholarship. Let the non-rev sports keep the status quo of scholarships (or really, partial scholarships) along with a cost-of-living stipend. The pro tier has no obligations to academic progress, and offers modest salary minimums with raises at vesting and for performance.

      • Wheezy

        Salary cap then?

        • art thiel

          Yes, like a wage scale slotted to experience. Players would be contract employees.

  • Mark Stratton

    You’re right that the FBI has better things to do, like following up on leads they got on a deranged, armed teenager in Florida. Oh, wait…

    • art thiel

      Weak. No troll points for you.

      • Mark Stratton

        I’m not saving troll points anyway. Just saying the G-men don’t have much credibility these days. Might as well have Boris and Natasha investigating.

        • Bruce McDermott

          And it is to the obvious benefit of our current administration if that can of bs is believed, which no doubt inspires some to open it repeatedly.

          • Mark Stratton

            Definite troll points for you. I wasn’t referencing anything to do with politics or Trump, but I guess some people can’t help themselves. The FBI was not exactly a friend to Hillary Clinton either, if you recall. The FBI has soiled itself multiple times recently and their credibility is lessened as a result. You can spin that any way you want.

  • Freiboth

    God bless your snarky ass Artie. Maybe now that things have gotten criminal stuffed shirts like Emmert will be forced to abandon the “student athlete – we offer them a free education” crap. Not only is it either ignorant or (more likely) cynical it’s condescending in that it assumes the rest of us can’t see behind the very thin curtain. Keep it up Arthur, you’re level of incredulity is not misplaced. Maynard must be proud.

    • art thiel

      Lots of fans/athletes/boosters/employees are heavily invested in the mythology of college sports. It’s going to take a lot to ground them in reality. Jail time for a few perps might be persuasive.

      Maynard is the jet pilot of snark. I am far back in his contrail.

  • coug73

    Blow it up. Have the NFL and NBA fund big time college sports programs, football and basketball. Instead of college FB & BB, have minor league teams run by the the pro leagues. Colleges can have club teams like the rugby team I played on at WSU. Club teams are fun, beer on the side lines for fans and players and a party after the match.

    • art thiel

      A blow-up unpacks the box way too fast. But a commitment to professionalism can be rolled out over five years.

      • coug73

        OK. Go Pro and drop the University affiliation.

        • art thiel

          No. The alumni participation remains important because so many think it’s a big deal about the quality of athletics at the school they attended. The brand helps keep the tribe together, and we are nothing if not tribal.

  • Kirkland

    The sports that have the most scandals are the ones where the NCAA is the virtual sole developmental talent for the pros. The ones that don’t have less drama. Hockey has junior leagues like the WHL and scouting of European players, baseball drafts from high school as much as college, and MLS is developing academy systems like in the top European leagues. Once the NBA and NFL find other ways to develop players outside colleges, like a U-20 league similar to the WHL or even Canadian football (yes, there is a junior football league there), that should free up the college spots for the players more serious about the scholarships.

    Of coutse, that means the NBA jettisoning its one-and-done rule, and the NFL owners turning away from a free developmental source of players. Fat chance.

    • art thiel

      The pro leagues won’t cut themselves off from free labor, so it’s up to the colleges to transform their “farm systems” into incorporated businesses that can develop funding partnerships with the pros. The new entity has to produce enough revs to maintain the other non-rev sports, which have some of the same corruption problems as the rev sports, only no one cares except the exploited families.

  • DB

    -Such a good commentary. I had to come back and read it again. Most detail the problems. Few offer well-conceived solutions as you have done here, Art.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, DB. I’ve referenced some of the points previously, but I hope with pending criminal prosecutions, the time has come to take college-sports reality seriously.

  • Husky73

    Great insights, and great writing.

  • rosetta_stoned

    Good suggestions, but I thought we did this already with the Southwest Conference.

  • ljstonebraker

    Do you think Husky basketball might be involved? With their recent first round picks? I would trust Mr Tomar to be clean until proven otherwise.

  • Tyler D

    As much as I enjoy College football as an UW alum and a little of basketball I think it’s way past time for those leagues to have a true minor league system like in baseball and hockey. Most the kids (young adults) that go through college on a baseball or hockey scholarship stay for the four years to get a degree. Where the young adults that don’t really care jump straight to the minors to earn a paycheck. At least it seems that way as an outside observer for those sports, so this is only speculation on my part.

    However, since College Football and Basketball are funded by tax payers, ad revenue, and fans to pay for the lower tier sports, over payed administrators in the NCAA, free farm system for the pros, and selling overpriced merchandise made cheaply in the “best” sweatshops this will not happen. The gravy train off the backs of these kids is too thick and overflowing with many hands on the ladle. It will take a major collapse of the current system of college athletics for this corrupt monopoly to break apart.