There’s no shortage of memorable things that happened in college basketball in 2018. UMBC beat Virginia in the first 16-over-1 upset. Villanova’s record-setting offense led the Wildcats to their second national title in three years. Sister Jean became a national sensation during Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four. And Ed Cooley covered his butt with a towel because he ripped his pants during a game. But 60 years from now, when I’m a senile old man who talks to potted plants, the one thing that I will remember most about 2018 is what didn’t happen: College basketball did not burn to the ground.
I’m referring, of course, to the FBI’s corruption investigation. The resulting scandal promised to forever alter the landscape of the sport. But more than a year after the initial arrests were made, we haven’t seen any blue-blood programs get hit with the death penalty. Instead, we’ve seen Rick Pitino turn himself into a martyr; a commission led by Condoleezza Rice make underwhelming recommendations, akin to trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose; and a whole lot of “bombshell” developments that turned out to be duds.
When news of the initial arrests broke in September 2017, it was as if the heavens parted and the content gods blessed us with enough material to last a lifetime. The scandal was so unexpected and so juicy that it hung over the entire 2017-18 season. It’s not what the FBI uncovered that was so shocking, though. That certain recruits get paid under the table to attend certain schools has long been the worst-kept secret in college basketball. No, what stunned everyone within the sport was that the FBI was involved in the NCAA’s domain at all. This was serious shit that nobody could make sense of, especially since there was no way of knowing how expansive the probe was. Once it became public that the feds had wiretapped phone calls, it was impossible to say for sure that any coach or program was completely safe. It seemed like anything could happen, which is why speculation about who might be involved often became a bigger deal than anything happening on the court (most notably when ESPN reported that the feds had a wiretap of Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment to bring Deandre Ayton to Arizona, which has yet to be substantiated).
As details of the investigation trickled out, fans waited for the hammer to drop and for the entire sport to be reduced to rubble. But then the season ended, and the offseason came and went. In October, three defendants—an Adidas employee, a former Adidas employee, and a former runner for an NBA agent—were found guilty on felony charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. But within college basketball, the casualties have essentially been only Pitino and Tom Jurich, who were fired by Louisville, and Brian Bowen Jr., who is playing professionally in Australia.
The dust hasn’t settled just yet. There are still two more federal criminal trials to come in 2019, and the NCAA will conduct its own investigations using information revealed during the trials. But I doubt that something substantial is going to come of all this, especially when Arizona, Louisville, and USC—three schools implicated in the scandal—have the top three recruiting classes in 2019, according to ESPN. After all, the carrot of further explosive revelations has been dangled in front of us for over a year now. It’s possible that the reason we’ve seen so few resolutions is because these are complex cases that take a long time to adjudicate. It’s also possible that the feds didn’t have as much evidence as we initially thought. But that is almost irrelevant at this point. What really matters is that 2018 was supposed to be the year of college basketball anarchy, yet we’re already a month into a new season and everything seems to be the same as it always has been.
And that pretty much sums up the source of my frustration with all of this. The NCAA’s power is limited in matters not pertaining to preserving amateurism. That became clear when Penn State’s sanctions were lifted early in 2014, despite how heinous Jerry Sandusky’s crimes were. It was reiterated when North Carolina’s basketball program faced no punishment despite its involvement in an academic fraud scheme that lasted 18 years. I don’t mind admitting that the NCAA’s lack of jurisdiction made both of those decisions the correct ones. But in each case, I shared the same “I can’t believe they’re getting away with this” sentiment that most of America felt.
This FBI scandal was supposed to be different, though. Not only did the feds do all of the investigative legwork for the NCAA, but the core issue of the case centers on the preservation of amateurism, which is the one thing that the NCAA is supposed to be equipped to handle. If ever there was an open-and-shut case for the NCAA, this seemed like it should be it. And not only has the NCAA refrained from making a single judgment pertaining to this scandal after almost 15 months, but president Mark Emmert said earlier this month that no decision will be made before the 2019 Final Four and that he wants to first put together a panel to oversee the NCAA’s high-profile cases, and that that panel will be formed … in August.
Wait … WHAT? We have to wait almost two full goddamn years from when the first arrests were announced for the NCAA investigation to even really begin? How in the hell is that possible? I’m not saying that the NCAA should treat everyone as guilty until proved innocent or rush to judgment in any way. But can we at least move in the general direction of judgment? Can we walk to judgment? Hell, I’ll take a crawl to judgment at this point. Just any indication whatsoever that a judgment will be reached in my lifetime would be an improvement.
Here’s the unfortunate reality: I’m not sure that the NCAA’s judgment even matters, because this scandal isn’t about the coaches being put on trial, or the prospects reported to have been the subject of pay-for-play schemes, or the programs whose trophies and banners are in jeopardy of being seized. Those are symptoms of the much bigger problem, which is that dirty recruiting is inevitable under the current economic structure of college athletics. People knew well before the FBI got involved that this has been going on for decades and is as ingrained into the fabric of college basketball as Big Ten teams losing in the national title game. So why did the NCAA start taking things seriously only when coaches started getting cuffed by the feds? And what is being done to make sure we won’t be right back in this same position five or 10 years from now?
I’m not talking about tweaks to the AAU calendar or new rules about involvement with agents or any of the changes brought on by the Rice commission. I’m talking about actually creating a system that no longer incentivizes college basketball coaches to cheat. Because that’s really the only way this scandal can reach a satisfactory conclusion. The NCAA has promised stronger enforcement of its rules, but that misses the crux of the problem, which is that the economics of college basketball still say that cheating is worth it. According to USA Today, there were 66 head-coaching jobs paying more than $1 million per year in 2017-18. The easiest way for a coach to eventually land one of those jobs is to succeed as a head coach at a smaller school. The easiest way to get a head job at a smaller school is to rise up the ranks as an assistant. The easiest way to succeed as an assistant is to kill it on the recruiting trail, and the easiest way to recruit well is to pay players under the table. Once a coach has one of those elite jobs, they have millions of reasons to do anything they can to stay on top of the mountain.
The FBI’s involvement is certainly significant, but it seems unlikely it will continue to spend its resources and taxpayer money chasing bag men who are committing victimless crimes, especially after the first undercover operation was nearly a debacle. That means the only regular deterrence facing college basketball coaches (other than their moral compass) is the NCAA. But even if the NCAA started handing out lifetime bans to first-time cheaters, the punishment would still be worth it if the ban is preceded by stashing a nice chunk of change in the bank. Besides, the NCAA is so ill-equipped to enforce its rules that coaches already know that they will likely either (a) never get caught in the first place, or (b) be able to pin everything on a fall guy and leave just enough plausible deniability to get another chance at some point down the road.
The bottom line is that amateur prospects have economic value, and shoe companies and big-time college basketball programs have plenty of resources to compete for their services. Until one of those things changes—or until the shoe companies and coaches are no longer incentivized to pay players—dirty recruiting is going to continue. It really is that simple. That’s why the real issue facing the NCAA isn’t about this batch of coaches, players, and programs that may or may not have gotten swept up in the current scandal. It’s about the inherently flawed system that is destined to continue to fail. Never mind this panel that’s supposed to come in August. What is Emmert doing to fix that?
The answer, as we all already know, is nothing. I don’t even say that from a cynical point of view. I sympathize with the NCAA more than most, which is to say that I’m a sucker who longs for the good old days and am therefore willing to at least hear out Emmert and his colleagues when they make a statement or decision that isn’t well-received by the public. But any changes made by the NCAA will be pointless if they don’t address the root problem. And the only two ways to do that are to find a way to stifle the revenue big-time college basketball programs generate and/or find a way to regulate the under-the-table payments to recruits by giving them a share of the revenue. The former isn’t even worth addressing, because if you think that there is any chance on God’s green earth that coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents are going to willingly stop stuffing their pockets with every last dime they can get their hands on, well, I’m not sure what to tell you. As for the latter, Emmert has remained steadfast in his belief that NCAA athletes should not be compensated, and rightfully so. As much as the general public is clamoring for college athletes to be paid, doing so would be a direct contradiction of the first core value of the NCAA (“… a commitment to the collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation”). I’m not saying that players aren’t entitled to their fair cut of the money they help bring in. I’m just saying that asking the NCAA to be the one to set up that system up is like asking the Catholic Church to accept the tenets of Scientology. It would be institutional suicide.
That’s exactly why you shouldn’t get your hopes up that the FBI scandal is going to lead to any meaningful change. A handful of people have been found guilty, with perhaps more to follow, and I suppose one or two more high-profile coaches could potentially lose their jobs. But isn’t that just a temporary distraction? I won’t speak for everyone, but I wasn’t licking my lips when the initial news broke because I wanted to see a banner or two come down or a Hall of Fame coach get the boot. I was licking my lips because I thought that the entire system was about to collapse and the cockroaches of college basketball would finally have to scurry back to wherever the hell it is they came from.
After more than a year, though, it’s clear that the NCAA’s empire isn’t going to crumble and that the economics of the college basketball enterprise aren’t going to be altered enough to get rid of shady recruiting. At best, the NCAA will beef up its enforcement of the rules and weed out the few idiots who were dumb enough to get caught. At worst, Emmert will do nothing but cross his fingers that the NBA will save the day by getting rid of the one-and-done rule, or by making the G League a viable alternative to college basketball, all the while ignoring the fact college programs will still have a ton of money and a strong incentive to do whatever it takes to get the best players on campus. Either way, the beat will go on, college basketball will continue to generate over a billion dollars in revenue, bags will continue to be dropped, and the NCAA suits will continue to valiantly fight against the forces of greed that have overrun the sport as they squat over their gold toilets and light their cigars with $100 bills. God bless amateur sports!