Weathering the midst of a grueling 2013 season, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino decided to motivate his team with a challenge. If Louisville won the national championship, the 60-year-old would ink himself with a commemorative tattoo.
March Madness soon rolled around, and the Cardinals, raising their play in the tournament, forced their coach to make good on his promise. Pitino received his first tattoo, a brightly colored (and very permanent) “L” with the words “2013 NCAA Champions” underneath. Last week, the NCAA voided the school’s championship, although Pitino’s back shoulder will beg to differ. The decision was the culmination of an NCAA investigation, which followed allegations that Cardinals staffers hired exotic dancers to strip and have sex with recruits (ABC News, “Louisville must vacate basketball title, NCAA denies appeal,” 2.20.2018).
A separate FBI investigation published last week also named Louisville among 20 top-tier programs involved in a system of bribing players for commitments to their schools. The findings were the result of two years worth of wiretaps on the phones of coaches, donors and sports agents (Yahoo Sports, “Federal documents detail sweeping potential NCAA violations,” 2.23.2018).
Nothing about these reports is groundbreaking. Around college basketball it is the quintessential open secret that top players are given money under the table. No need for a wiretap; former college stars are not embarrassed to admit that on their own. Doing so is a progressive act of protest.
“Someone take down the NCAA for generating billions of dollars to only pay its student athletes a cost of attendance of $900 dollars a month,” tweeted current Laker and former Utah Ute Kyle Kuzma, who was cited in the FBI report as receiving $16,000 for his time in college (Twitter, @kylekuzma, 2.20.2018).
“You got $900???? Bro I got $273…” quipped former Villanova Wildcat Josh Hart in response to his teammate (Twitter, @joshhart, 2.21.2018).
Under the student-athlete model of the NCAA, payments in the hyper-competitive environment of big-time college basketball are inevitable. So much so that sports culture has made it a cliché to even point it out. Every basketball fan remembers Coach Bell’s press conference in the fictitious film “Blue Chips”: “You just got to get your mind out of the gutter, it’s right there in front of you, for Christ’s sake we didn’t just give him an automobile, I mean it was a fully loaded Lexus!”
The lack of originality in the extremely thorough FBI investigation makes the whole report seem merely petty. Corruption in the NCAA has always been implied, but only now has the FBI finally decided to look. The report reads like an offbrand version of McCarthyism, a storm that moves randomly and recklessly, chastising top prospects
that could really be anyone.
Michigan State sophomore guard Myles Bridges was one of those unlucky enough be named. Last winter, Bridges allowed an agent to buy dinner for his family members. The NCAA ruled Bridges ineligible, but has reinstated him after he donated the equivalent cost of the dinner, a grand total of $40, to a charity of his choice (Deadspin, “Unpaid Athlete Resolves Paid Dinner Scandal,” 2.26.2018).
This “punishment” is every bit unnecessary. It is particularly sad to see a player like Bridges, a guy who chose to stay an extra year in college as opposed to jumping straight to the NBA, be so victimized for such a trivial matter. The move does little to deter future corruption, and does much more to incentivize top players to leave college as quickly as possible. Also, shouldn’t the FBI be spending its time on more important investigations at Michigan State? Anyone remember the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by school physician Larry Nassar?
Fortunately for Bridges, a $40 donation pales in comparison to the heat taken by other top recruits. Jahvon Quinerly and Shareef O’Neal were both pressured into decommitting from Arizona after Head Coach Sean Miller was connected to paying recruits. It is a weird irony to see Shareef, the son of millionaire Shaquille O’Neal, be the one to suffer from the fallout, given that the young man was likely not in need of a bribe.
O’Neal does not profile as the typical basketball blue chip—many of these young men come from low-income backgrounds, putting them in tough positions to turn down any kind of money or assistance. Being a broke college student with a demanding unpaid work schedule is frustrating, particularly when you are only a year away from making millions professionally.
“Yeah, probably. I needed the money,” NBA star Kevin Durant said when asked if he would have entered the NBA out of high school (CBS, “Kevin Durant against one-and-done rule,” 2.23.2018).
In the wake of the report, public opinion has only come to reinforce support for paid college athletes, turning blame towards the NCAA itself. The organization currently operates in a muddy legal system of its own creation, punishing players and programs without a clean formula and with little precedent. Louisville deserved to be sanctioned for the extent of its corruption, but taking a championship away from innocent players is a harsh and empty gesture. No matter if the banner comes down, we all saw the championship game happen.
At its roots, the NCAA model is a great one: Colleges utilize high revenues from popular sports to offer free college educations to athletes across many different programs. However, the system fails top athletes, who are left unable to capitalize off the tremendous profits resulting from their athletic success. I am not one to advocate that all athletes should be paid, but those with the ability to pursue extra financial gain should not be restricted from doing so, whether it be by signing a endorsement deal or appearing in a commercial.
It is all these added restrictions the NCAA has forced upon its student-athletes that have turned them into the villains. They appear as an organization in desperate need of casting penalties, a cheap attempt to assert themselves as the good guys.
As long as they continue to do so, any investigative findings will always fall upon deaf ears. Nobody cares that top athletes are paid. Most believe they should be anyway. It’s up to the NCAA now to enact progress, rather than deter it.