No one with even a modicum of interest in college sports was the least bit surprised at the allegations leveled against college basketball last week. Athletic shoe and apparel companies, agents, runners, coaches, and parents have long been involved in bribery and recruiting scandals within the archaic and ineffective world of NCAA amateurism. Men’s college basketball, in particular, has always been a house of cards doomed to fall at some point, and it did very swiftly last week.
Court records and sealed complaints released by the U.S. Attorney’s office revealed a detailed and clandestine FBI investigation that exposed alleged under-the-table payments to agents, coaches, and parents to influence talented athletes to choose particular colleges to play basketball.
Recruiting scandals similar to this latest mess have littered the NCAA landscape for years. Some of the more notable cases in the sordid world of men’s college basketball recruiting include University of Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey sending $1,000 to eventual Kentucky signee Chris Mills in the 1980s. In the 1990s, University of Michigan booster Ed Martin loaned a total of $616,000 to basketball players Chris Webber, Louis Bullock, Robert Traylor, and Maurice Taylor, while allegedly offering money for the services of Mateen Cleaves, then a highly recruited prospect. Even in the 1960s, Southwestern Louisiana University (now Louisiana Lafayette) was put on NCAA probation for local boosters raising money to give to African-American players who wanted to play at the school.
The lack of surprise at a scandal like this speaks volumes. The NCAA and its member institutions have essentially encouraged these so-called crimes by imposing compensation restrictions on athletes under the guise of “amateur status,” which, according to the NCAA Division I Manual, means college athletes cannot be paid nor profit off their athletic ability, name, image, or likeness. It’s rules like these that keep young athletes captive and catering to the selfish motives of professional sports leagues that do not have to fund developmental leagues in football and basketball.
While the NCAA enforcement staff has investigated coaches and recruiting violations for years, it has not been successful in rooting out this type of corruption, nor has it really tried because of the danger of cutting off the money. Previous punishments have been light, ineffective, and often slanted to protect high-profile coaches and players as much as possible. University of Louisville’s head basketball coach Rick Pitino recently received a slap on the wrist and an eight-game suspension for his alleged lack of knowledge and oversight in the recent “Strippergate” recruiting debacle, when lesser coaches would have likely lost their jobs immediately. Make no mistake, this type of under-the-table payment and inducements in recruiting has been an open secret for years, but the NCAA has always lacked the capacity, will, and desire to actually investigate scenarios like this. Even though football at the major NCAA Division I level is a major cash cow, it is largely run by the conferences. Men’s college basketball and its popular March Madness tournament brings in over $740 million in revenue yearly, which in turn funds many of the operations (over 90%) of the three NCAA divisions in the areas of championships, enforcement, and other governance areas.
In simple terms, NCAA Division I men’s basketball is too big to fail and too important financially to the NCAA membership. The current system’s priorities, meaning winning and revenue generation, is important for member schools to sell tickets, pay coaches exorbitant salaries, sell sponsorships, and compete on TV. It is the ultimate Catch-22. Coaches are solely judged on winning and losing, universities oftentimes value their high-profile intercollegiate athletic programs more than academic primacy and candidly, and fans do not seem to care whether the athletes are students or being paid under the table. They just want to see the games. Thus, the reward far outweighs any risk, and the chances that the NCAA would address and attempt to stop a lucrative black market of player peddling the highest bidder stretches the limits of credibility. It can be hard to bite the hand that feeds you.
While there will likely be NCAA violations for many at some point, this is not yet an NCAA investigation. If some coaches were doing it to get an edge in the financially lucrative world of college sports, there are many others doing the same thing. Consequently, there are some terrified coaches, shoe executives, athletic directors, and presidents waiting for the proverbial next shoe to drop (pun intended), and drop it surely will—soon.
David Ridpath is associate professor and Kahandas Nandola Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University.