College basketball always has had its share of unsavoriness. Hard proof has been difficult to come by, but believing that plenty of coaches, recruiters and boosters are cheating in the name of winning games and making money never has seemed a stretch. We accept the idea of bagmen lurking in bushes. Much of it is sleazy, but we know to wipe our feet going in and out of the arena.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino seemed to be right on the edge of that unsavoriness. There was never enough to implicate him directly, but there was enough to make you roll your eyes. For example, he apparently was one assistant coach removed from a sex-for-pay scandal at the school in 2015. Maybe that’s why Pitino was always so perfectly coiffed, clothed and scrubbed. It was as if he were willing himself to be the picture of clean in the face of suggestions to the contrary.
The façade was shattered Wednesday, and somehow it was stunning and unremarkable at the same time. Louisville put Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave after a federal investigation into a national bribery scheme whose aim was to influence star players’ choices of colleges, agents and shoe companies. Both likely will be fired.
Colleges, coaches, agents and shoe companies knee-deep in filth?
Of course, colleges, coaches, agents and shoe companies knee-deep in filth! What did you expect?
Someone surely will term this a wakeup call for college sports, but it only will be a wakeup call if it leads the NCAA and its institutions to start paying players.
Put enough money in the athletes’ pockets so that the majority of them won’t be tempted by offers of cash, cars, iPhones or whatever might get the attention of a young person. And get the NBA to lift its age limit. Let players turn professional straight out of high school, rather than make them wait until they’re 19.
According to the investigation, three top high school players were promised as much as $150,000 each to attend universities sponsored by Adidas. My uneducated guess is that those players would have declared for the NBA draft out of high school if they could have.
Ah, but the NCAA doesn’t want to lose the golden goose to the NBA, even if the goose is around for only one season. Schools such as Louisville and Kentucky profit greatly by being one-year way stations for soon-to-be NBA players. What this investigation says to the NCAA is, ‘‘Your way doesn’t work.’’
Money eats at everything. The idea here is to make it less corrosive.
A full scholarship to a major American university is substantial. But if there’s one theme coming out of the federal investigation into the payoffs, it’s that everybody seems to be getting rich except the vast majority of athletes. The top basketball and football programs are making huge amounts of money, as are the TV networks, the advertisers and the shoe companies. The NCAA tournament is a multibillion-dollar business. Head coaches are millionaires.
The assistant coaches who are implicated in the investigation reportedly were being paid for influencing kids to come to their college or to sign with a shoe company or agent. So add them to the got-rich crowd.
A substantial percentage of college basketball and football players come from poverty. Put an envelope full of cash in the hand of an 18-year-old kid who has had nothing, and what do you expect him to do? If you divert some of the schools’ profits to the kids — the kids who are providing the talent that produces all that revenue — perhaps the temptation to take illicit money won’t be so great.
That’s not to say that coaches, recruiters and boosters would put away their wallets if schools officially paid players. Cheating always will be with us. Even if schools had to give athletes stipends, there would continue to be an arms race. One school would pay under the table. Another school would pay more under the table. One school offers a recruit’s mom a car? In response, another offers her a home. It happens. It’s the human condition.
But if you give players enough money to have a social life, to buy things they want or need, you take away some of the inducement to accept dirty money. How many times have you read news stories about college athletes being arrested for stealing merchandise from a store? Do you think they’re career criminals? Or do you think they’re simply poor?
I’m not advocating outrageous salaries here. Football and men’s basketball revenue pays for most of the other sports at Division I schools. Those sports would suffer if too much money went to football and basketball players.
But paying athletes enough to resist temptation would go a long way toward shrinking some of the sleaze pool in college sports. Letting players go to the NBA out of high school would shrink it even more.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.