The stinking mess of college hoops pay-to-play | Bob Ford

Fraud Charges Louisville Basketball
Rick Pitino, out as coach of Louisville after allegations of “player buying.”

Once your college basketball program has gone on probation for providing strippers at parties for potential recruits, it’s a natural progression to simply cut out the working girls and instead give the money directly to the recruits. Why go through all that trouble and have to sweep up a bunch of tassels and pay to clean the limos when you can just buy the players and their services for a semester or so?

If the Department of Justice and the FBI are correct, that’s exactly the logic applied at Rick Pitino’s Louisville program, particularly in the matter of landing five-star recruit Brian Bowen for the price of $100,000, which, given what Bowen could have provided in his season of enforced collegiate servitude, was pretty much a bargain.

The dough was allegedly funneled through Adidas, which likes it when big-time players go to schools that wear its gear, and, for his part, Pitino was so surprised at all this — not to mention his removal as coach — that the whole thing was just devastating. One would imagine.

The Louisville revelations were just part of a much larger information dump presented by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which made it clear that Louisville wasn’t the only hog at the trough. The filing looks really bad for Adidas, playing its eternal catch-up game against the towering god of Nike, but anyone who believes this sort of shenanigan is limited to these schools or that shoe company is really not paying attention. This is about who got caught because that’s the way the investigation went. The feds squeezed some slimy guys who got nabbed for other things, and the only difference between Louisville and other schools that skated away this time is that their slimy guys haven’t been nabbed for something else yet.

There was also an issue presented that is separate from the buying of players, and it put assistant coaches at four schools under arrest. The FBI discovered that once in a program, naive players would find themselves steered to taking a certain shoe contract once they went pro, or to a certain agent and financial representative, or — how can you make this up? — to a certain tailor to the stars. In exchange for providing the youngsters with this friendly advice, the coaches got kickbacks from shoe companies, agents, and, apparently, a tailor to the stars.

Now, you’re not going to believe this part, but NCAA president Mark Emmert was gobsmacked by the whole deal. He didn’t learn about it until the FBI and the Department of Justice  made their findings public last week, which should tell you everything you need to know about how much trust the government has in the NCAA to either be helpful in an investigation or to not tip off the perps. Once again, we’re left with the continuing impression that the NCAA couldn’t find corn in Kansas.

Meanwhile, at the receiving end of all the college nonsense, the NBA is just kind of shuffling its feet around and not saying anything, even though the ridiculous one-and-done rule in college basketball was largely the NBA’s doing and is largely the problem with this expensive rental of guys who should be in the pros.

You know why there is a one-and-done rule? Very simple. Because NBA owners grew tired of drafting high school guys and giving them a lot of money and then seeing them turn into busts. They wanted to watch them for a college season before risking their capital. For every Dwight Howard, there was a Martell Webster; for every Kevin Garnett or LeBron James, there was a Kwame Brown or Jonathan Bender.

It had nothing to do with giving the players time to mature, or with looking out for their best interests. It was all about money. Big shock. The league could have played with its roster rules and used the D-League (now G-League) in the same way that baseball uses the minor leagues for players drafted out of high school, or hockey uses the junior leagues, but why spend that money, either? Push the problem onto the college game, even though the abuses we are seeing now were inevitable, and have been going on for quite a while.

I have no problem with a worker being paid for his or her services. In fact, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States outlawed the absence of pay for that work. In a free-market society, if Brian Bowen can negotiate to receive $100,000 for his toil during the phony purgatory period between high school and the NBA, good for him. Let’s just make sure when a college or shoe company closes that deal, there is a news conference and an announcement of all the details.

But let’s not bother pretending this sort of commerce can be prevented, not under the current set of rules. That’s difficult because the entire industry is built around pretending, whether concerning the ideals of higher education as it exploits these day laborers with no intention of actually educating them, or the hypocrisy of the professional game that benefits from the mostly unpaid internships.

The whole thing stinks, and a few indictments aren’t going to bring about the winds of change. There’s too much money to be made, and when that is the case, you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the tassels blow.