Commentary: College Basketball's 'Open Secret' Created A Scandal That Won't Go Away
The underground economy of amateur college sports — where agents, boosters, and other deal-makers pay to play — has long been an open secret, to coaches, student-athletes and even fans. But now that someone — specifically, the Justice Department — is making a federal case of it, could a real cleanup be on the way? Commentator Victor Wishna explains in this month’s edition of “A Fan’s Notes.”
Over their decades of dominance, the Kansas Jayhawks have raised dozens of triumphant banners to the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse. The newest ones — for KU’s record-breaking 14th-consecutive Big 12 title and the program’s 15th Final Four — may be the first to ever come down.
It’s all because of an ongoing FBI probe and the NCAA penalties that might — some say inevitably will — result.
With so much front-page news about federal investigations, you might have missed this one, and it’s a little tough to unpack. Back in September, the Justice Department handed down 10 indictments for a scheme to funnel hot prospects to certain schools by bribing coaches and making secret payments to players’ families. The money flowed from sportswear brands and agents in exchange for the promise that these future NBA stars would sign with them later on.
This month, it hit closer to home when new charges alleged that a rep for Adidas had paid for two players to enroll at Kansas, which has a massive apparel deal with the giant company. One of those recruits, Billy Preston, never actually played for KU, but the second, Silvio De Sousa, became an impact performer in the latter half of the season, averaging more than 12 minutes per game in the Jayhawks’ run to the Final Four.
Oh, by the way — KU is the victim here, at least officially. It’s why the FBI is involved, to investigate the supposed defrauding of federally-funded public institutions that extended precious scholarships under false pretenses.
Yeah, it’s hard to buy the idea that KU has been wronged by Adidas, just as the two partners are renewing a nearly-$200-million contract in what would be the most lucrative case of Stockholm syndrome I’ve ever heard of.
The NCAA has tried to head off this scandal with a blue-ribbon panel of coaches, officials, and former players headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who issued her commission’s recommendations last week. The response, let’s just say, has been skeptical. “Condi’s Useless Commission Gives Useless Advice,” blasted a Deadspin headline, under the tagline “Death to the NCAA.”
By and large, Rice and company pinned the blame on outside actors and stuck to the story: The universities’ trust and the purity of their endeavor has been violated by the big, bad shoe companies and others.
The problem, of course, isn’t the untenable amateur rules, but the enforcement. And players and their families are simply pawns in all of this — which is just how the NCAA likes it.
To be fair, I think those who warn against the wholesale professionalism of college sports — turning athletes into employees who are also required to go to class — are right. But in that case, with riches from TV and licensing deals flowing into athletic departments’ and coaches’ coffers, is there any enduring solution short of blowing up the entire system? Do big-time sports have any place in a university’s stated mission? It’s another example of good old American exceptionalism that our society is the only one that so blends higher education and pre-professional athletics.
And really, should it?
I don’t know. But only pressure from outside authority will ever change the way the NCAA does its billion-dollar business, which is why the FBI’s involvement makes this the biggest and most important scandal in the history of college sports.
In its own storied annals, the Jayhawks’ basketball program has been cited a handful of times but has never forfeited a game, never vacated a title. But it’s hard to believe the NCAA, which is waiting on the FBI before taking its own measures to punish ineligibility after the fact, won’t come down hard. And if there’s any proof that coach Bill Self or his staff knew, then it won’t just be banners that wind up taking a fall.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.