Have you filled out your bracket yet? Better hurry — by 5:40 p.m. Eastern time, when Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View A&M tip off to open the NCAA’s First Four play-in, the 2019 NCAA Tournament will have begun and your prognostications, at least those for the various monetary remunerations and other prizes so many chase by putting their skills at hoops analysis to the test, will be tardy.
It’s time for March Madness, perhaps the greatest show in all of sports. Don’t give me the World Cup in soccer — nothing about soccer is great. If you need Ole’ chants and vuvuzelas, not to mention full-on brawls in the stands between gangs of drunken hooligans, in order to hold your interest in a contest where national pride is at hand, you are clearly at an inferior sporting venue.
The NCAA Tournament is the showcase of a great game, perhaps matched only by that of college football’s four-team playoff. But from a competitive standpoint, college hoops might even be a little better than the gridiron version — every year in the Big Dance some heretofore unbeatable team is beaten by a lovable, improbable underdog, and every so often those underdogs become unbeatable themselves. Butler could never become a national champion in FBS football, of course, and Gonzaga could hardly be expected to yearly line up against Alabama with an even point spread.
But in basketball, it happens all the time. By the end of Loyola of Chicago’s Final Four run last year it was no longer a surprise to see that Cinderella team knocking out better-known and seemingly more talented clubs. We’ve become accustomed to see mid-major conference teams shock the titans of the game — the Middle Tennessees, the Valparaisos, Davidsons, George Masons and VCU’s are what has made the Dance fun for everyone.
There are no Cinderella teams in the interminable NBA playoffs. Butler doesn’t beat Pitt and Wisconsin in best-of-seven series, for the same reason the Pelicans don’t knock out Golden State.
But for all the uncertainty and bracket-busting mayhem the Tournament has on offer, college basketball is great because the game is great. The high-flying dunks, the intense defense, the full-court scrambles in transition, the wars in the paint and the rainbow threes make for a fabulous show, and the athleticism of today’s college players is breathtaking. Someone in cryostasis since the mid-1980’s would take in a college game and see the wizardry of the Zion Williamson-R.J. Barrett-Cam-Reddish-Trae Jones led Duke team or the length and firepower of Brandon Clark and Rui Hashimura at Gonzaga, and conclude that even the great Phi Slamma Jamma crew at Houston or Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown teams would struggle to handle today’s best clubs from a pace-of-play standpoint.
College basketball is great, and it’s getting better. Fan interest and the revenue associated with it is proof, even amid the softening of the cord-cutting sports viewing market. People know a good thing when they see it, and they’re seeing more college basketball than ever.
But there’s a dirty little secret to the college game which shouldn’t really be one. That’s being made even more clear of late amid a pending federal trial in New York, in which three Adidas employees — Merl Code, Joe Gatto, and Christian Dawkins — are facing prosecution by a perhaps overzealous U.S. Attorney essentially for allegations they’ve bribed college basketball coaches to steer their players into shoe and sports agent deals.
The defense attorneys for the three argued, unsuccessfully, in the first round of the trials that what their clients have been doing doesn’t involve a crime. Essentially what Adidas and other athletic shoe companies like Nike and Under Armour do is work through the elite high school summer leagues to build relationships with high-level recruitable athletes and shop them to colleges in an influence-peddling game. If there’s a player who has built a relationship with Adidas through his AAU coach and your program’s shoe contract is with Nike, you might be at a disadvantage. And so on. And on the back end those coaches are sometimes expected to play ball by advising those players to hook up with a friendly sports agent or sign his big pro shoe deal with the brand they’ve worn in college. But nobody is forced to do anything they don’t want to do.
The next phase of the trial takes place next month, after the Big Dance is over, and in advance of that Dawkins’ attorney Steve Haney has all but said he’ll take down college basketball to save his client. Haney is saying that Dawkins, who’s essentially a middleman between the recruits and the college coaches, isn’t doing anything to unduly tarnish the college game that it isn’t doing to itself, and along those lines a bunch of FBI-wiretapped conversations from Dawkins’ phone have made their way to Yahoo! Sports for incendiary muckraking web exposés. It’s pretty clear Haney, or somebody he’s close to, has been leaking them — and as a result a host of major-college programs like Kansas, Arizona, LSU, Maryland, Louisville, Auburn, TCU, Oklahoma State, USC, and others, have been thrown into crisis. LSU’s head coach Will Wade, who in two years has taken a team that was 10-21 and 2-16 in the SEC before he arrived to 26-6 and 16-2 in the SEC this year, is currently suspended after a wiretap leaked with some inconvenient statements he made about a “strong-ass offer” made to a recruit. Coaches at Kansas are on tape discussing offers of cash and benefits — employment, housing, and otherwise – for Williamson, the college game’s premier player — but didn’t even sign him.
Duke did. And ever since, there have been rumors that Duke won Williamson more or less at an auction.
But so what if they did?
Here’s a quick bit of reality for those who don’t get it — in college basketball, and college football too, everybody cheats. If you don’t, you get run over.
And they’ve cheated for a very, very long time. There has been cheating in college sports since before World War II. Maybe even since before World War I.
Nobody gets hurt from this system, either. There are no victims. If a Zion Williamson wants a taste of an NBA millionaire lifestyle before actually going on to the NBA, who are we to tell him he can’t have it? And if Duke’s boosters, or those at Kansas or Kentucky or Louisville — or even some shoe company — are willing to foot the bill for that, do you really think they’re victims?
And the schools? Please. The schools make out fabulously well from this system which is supposedly so corrupt. Alabama football is the cheatingest program around — just ask everybody who has to play the Crimson Tide in the fall. And yet between 2006 and now, over the time Nick Saban has been the football coach in Tuscaloosa, the share of out-of-state students in that school’s student body has risen to more than half. That represents a colossal windfall for the university, as out of state tuition for a public university often rivals that of a private school, and the University of Alabama’s campus is a veritable forest of construction cranes with beautiful buildings popping up at a torrid pace. Saban might be a damnable cheater, but nobody in the Heart of Dixie would trade him for anything else.
Ditto for Kansas basketball, which has kept that state on the map through awful economic times. Or Louisville’s athletic program, which rode Rick Pitino’s likely ill-gotten success (the Cardinals had to vacate their 2013 national basketball title, for which nobody is particularly sorry) to prominence. Or USC, whose football dynasty in the first decade of this century was marred by the Reggie Bush scandal — and yet nobody there has much in the way of regret.
Gonzaga is proof of what this system can do for a university. Its current coach Mark Few has a reputation for running a clean program, sure, but not so long ago in 1998, Gonzaga was hit with the dreaded NCAA “lack of institutional control” designation and put on probation. But since Few brought that program to unheard-of basketball prominence, whether through pristine means or no (Gonzaga recruits some blue-chippers but has largely thrived on recruiting international talent, and who knows what’s involved in that effort), he’s done maybe even more for that school’s profile than Saban has for Alabama. From 1999 to 2017 Gonzaga’s annual admissions applications quadrupled, from 1,841 to 7,342. Its budget also quadrupled, from $73 million to $283 million. Its enrollment nearly doubled, from 4,061 to 7,572. And its faculty has mushroomed from 279 to 434.
That’s a hell of a kick in the pants coming from five guys shooting basketballs through hoops. And it’s happened at a lot of places.
And don’t tell me the game is the victim, because that is clearly a lie. There is a reason that outside of a poor facsimile of college athletics in Canada no other country has what we have. In Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia or Japan they don’t have college basketball, football, baseball or even soccer. The top high school basketball players from those countries come to America to hone their skills for pro ball — and they do so in most other sports as well. If not, the top 19-year old prospects end up on club teams nobody cares about until it’s time to go pro. And the sports they play suffer for it.
You take the boosters out of college football and college basketball and most of those top players will drain right out of the sport. And the NFL and NBA will be forced to build minor league systems as a result — with the same small-time product Major League Baseball’s minor leagues belch out as a result. Believe me, America’s small and mid-sized cities have enough to put up with from the low-level hucksters and welfare cheats who run minor league baseball; triple that with football and basketball joining in and you will love that result not one bit.
And let’s not pretend we’re upset at the idea this system is a perversion of our idyllic fantasy about “student athletes.” Most of the students at these institutions barely deserve that designation. Hell, most of them work harder at drinking, hooking up, and idle campus activism than actually learning anything; the hardest-working kids on these campuses are the ones practicing and lifting weights 30 hours a week as well as going to school. And the coaches you see under fire in the media for these scandals are harder-working, more accountable, and under more pressure to perform than hardly anyone else on their campuses.
What’s so irritating about the FBI wiretap revelations over the past year is the sanctimony coming from the talking heads in the studio shows and at the arenas doing color commentary — or the columnists on the web like Dan Wolken and Clay Travis. These guys act like the Wade transcripts are the first inklings they’ve ever seen that somebody might have been cheating in college sports. Dick Vitale on ESPN might be the worst of the bunch — Vitale has carried out a personal vendetta on Wade, who last week somehow emerged as the Bad Boy Of College Basketball despite the more serious revelations about Kansas and Arizona (Wildcat head coach Sean Miller was caught on tape last year discussing a $100,000 payment to star forward DeAndre Ayton when the latter was a recruit), on the air and on Twitter. That’s been entertaining in its irony — a week ago Vitale was bashing Wade while calling a game between Tennessee, coached by Rick Barnes who’d been embroiled in an academic fraud scandal while at Texas, and Auburn, coached by Bruce Pearl who had spent five years banned from coaching college basketball over violations committed while Tennessee’s coach and who is also implicated in the FBI-Adidas probe.
None of these guys is credible in screaming about corruption in the game. They’re shocked to find gambling in the casino.
And what’s worse, in the same breath they’re whining about the cheaters they’re also demanding the players get paid in college sports because it’s unfair the schools should be making billions of dollars off these student-athletes and giving only a college scholarship in return.
News flash, fellas — they are getting paid just like you want them to. Except not really, because if these guys had their wish you’d have the same lousy $2,000-a-month stipend paid across the board, from girls’ volleyballers at Weber State to the starting quarterback at Clemson. And guess what’s wrong with that little communist wonderland? It solves absolutely nothing where the cheating is concerned, because the players aren’t stupid — they’ll pocket the lousy stipend and then see what else the boosters can come up with on the side.
The market is what has built college sports. The market works, even if because of stupid rules built on sappy ideals about amateurism when everything about a modern college athletic program screams “professional” it has to be a black market.
So if the FBI-Adidas probe ends up pushing into the open what everybody already knows to be true, so be it and maybe we can finally drop the hypocrisy. None of that changes the greatness of the college game, and none of it should stop you from filling out that bracket.
Quickly, please. The games are about to begin.