Shoes will drop in wake of NCAA hoops scandal

Every spring we’re treated to one of the nation’s favorite sporting spectacles — the NCAA Division I men’s college basketball championship.

“March Madness” as it’s called is often hyped as a tournament of Davids vs. Goliaths where small schools from mid-major conferences take on traditional powerhouses and perennial contenders like Louisville and Arizona.

The playing field has never been level because the nation’s most prominent programs have always had an upper hand in recruiting talent. Revenue from the gate and lucrative television contracts mean big schools can spend millions to hire the best coaches. The TV deals also ensure that players get the exposure they crave in a bid to get drafted.

But this advantage apparently wasn’t enough for some coaching staffs now implicated in a federal corruption probe.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice charged 10 people in conjunction with a bribery scheme, including assistant coaches at Arizona, Oklahoma State, Auburn and USC. The investigation also implicated Louisville in the illegal payment of a recruit. As a result, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino —a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame — has been placed on unpaid leave and will likely be fired.

Prosecutor Joon Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, described the investigation as exposing “the dark underbelly of college athletics.”

“The picture painted by the charges brought today is not a pretty one,” Kim said. “Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes. Managers and financial advisers circling blue chip prospects like coyotes. And employees of one of the world’s largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high school recruits.”

The alleged scheme worked like this: Sportswear companies funneled money to the families of top recruits to sign with schools they sponsor. They also paid players to ensure they would sign with hand-picked agents and financial advisers before they went to the NBA. The coaches allegedly acted as intermediaries.

The NCAA and university officials are expressing shock and dismay, but many college basketball insiders say bribery and collusion have been rampant for years. Now that the FBI is involved, cooperating witnesses seeking to lessen their own punishment are likely to help expand the probe and provide a more complete picture of the scope of the problem.

At some point the NCAA is going to have to concede that a black market has emerged from a noble attempt to keep college athletics an “amateur” enterprise. The best players have tremendous value in the marketplace. It may be time to figure out a way to compensate them or see the vacuum filled in nefarious ways.


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