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An FBI Sting Operation Just Exposed College Basketball’s Worst-Kept Secret

Four assistant coaches were charged in a scandal that brings the sport’s dirty recruiting tactics to the forefront of the public consciousness. That could mean short-term chaos—and maybe long-term change.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Shortly after 9 a.m. ET on Tuesday morning, NBC’s Tom Winter shook the college basketball world to its core by tweeting the following:

Before Rick Pitino could even scramble to a mirror to practice his “I had no idea this was going on” face, details started to emerge. Federal authorities charged four assistant coaches—Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans, Auburn’s Chuck Person, Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson, and USC’s Tony Bland—with fraud and corruption. The FBI charged 10 people in total, including Adidas global director of sports marketing James Gatto. The legal documents in the case allege that the men took part in a scheme in which the involved coaches accepted bribes to funnel recruits to specific college programs, and then later to agreed-upon apparel companies and representation. And while neither Pitino nor Louisville was explicitly mentioned in the affidavits, deductive reasoning suggests that the feds have evidence that prized recruit Brian Bowen was paid $100,000 to sign with the Cardinals.

Arrests were made. Fancy charts were created. A press conference at a U.S. Attorney’s Office was held. Essentially, the FBI revealed it used wiretaps, undercover agents, informants, and all sorts of other resources to discover a mind-blowing story that nobody saw coming: As it turns out, college sports aren’t the bastion of amateurism and purity that they’re made out to be.

That’s a good place to start in unpacking what Tuesday’s news means in the grand scheme, considering that the NCAA’s unwavering stance that college sports should forever preserve the concept of amateurism is the genesis of countless scandals in the association’s history. No matter your beliefs on whether student-athletes should be better compensated (beyond scholarships, room, and board), it’s clear that the most talented ones (or at least those who play sports that turn a profit) have long been paid through unscrupulous means. The higher-ups in the system have routinely exploited the fact that student-athletes don’t get any piece of the billion-dollar college-sports-industry pie, and unless drastic changes are made, athletes receiving money through illegal back channels will remain inevitable.

This is why the FBI case, one that seems extensive in scale, isn’t even a fraction as interesting as the implications that it could have going forward. After all, dirty recruiting tactics were the worst-kept secret in college sports. Even the most naïve fan knew that a day of reckoning was coming, when the house of cards built by apparel companies, agents, financial advisers, shady coaches, and handlers of big-time recruits would all come crashing down. But there was always an implicit understanding that D-Day would happen as a result of an NCAA investigation. Few could have anticipated that the first move would come at the hands of the FBI, which has the power to make real-life arrests and clearly isn’t afraid to wield it.

The FBI ran a sting, and it’s suddenly put a spotlight on the parts of college basketball that have always lurked in the shadows. Now, all of the cockroaches in the sport are scurrying to save their lives. Especially with the FBI’s William Sweeney delivering a thinly veiled threat toward every coach in America: “We have your playbook. Our investigation is ongoing and we are conducting additional interviews as I speak.”

There’s no telling how widespread the FBI’s probe goes or just how hard the hammer will drop on those implicated, but it’s clear that college basketball is on the verge of major reform. Even if that doesn’t come in the form of legally paying players, recruiting strategies will be overhauled. A more competitive balance among teams across the country should emerge, as the big-time programs won’t be able to throw money around quite as flagrantly. And if all of the authorities’ allegations prove to be true, college basketball royalty will face program-altering consequences, notably Arizona (which has a realistic chance of entering the 2017-18 season as the no. 1 team in the AP Poll) and Louisville (which has survived so many scandals in recent years that it feels like Pitino is Matt Damon’s character in The Departed and is about to open his apartment door while carrying a bag of groceries).

This scandal has the potential, in terms of pervasiveness, to be the biggest in college sports history. The 10 men charged by the FBI represent the tip of the iceberg—one that conceivably could have been avoided if the NCAA had different rules, or at least if it allowed players to profit off of their names and likenesses. This all poses a question that the NCAA has faced for years, and that has once again become too pressing to ignore: At what point will the magnitude of these types of scandals outweigh the association’s pursuit of maintaining the college sports amateur model?

This is why, even though many are proclaiming Tuesday to be a dark day for college basketball, I see it as great for the sport. Sure, in the short term there will be nefarious cover-ups and unsavory headlines. There will be blame cast in all the wrong places, from NCAA administrators to coaches to executives. And several major programs could be penalized beyond repair. But for now I’m optimistic that Tuesday’s announcement of an ongoing FBI investigation could do for college basketball what the Mitchell Report did for baseball. I’m optimistic that college basketball could rise from the ashes that an FBI sting will certainly create, and that it could one day get to a place where it operates with a moderately cleaner conscience.

In the meantime, I’m going to grab some popcorn and enjoy watching this shitshow burn completely to the ground.