The best way I’ve been able to describe Tuesday’s revelations of a federal investigation into fraud and corruption in college basketball has been “shocking yet not surprising.”
It is truly astonishing to read through the pages of the charging documents in which the government lays out a case in incredible detail of the system in which money changes hands between shoe companies, middlemen, assistant coaches, financial advisers, agents and anyone else who can insert themselves into this apparently lucrative setup. The federal government says it has audio of discussions about this corruption. They claim to have video of in-person meetings. They’ve got a cooperating witness, multiple undercover agents and wiretaps that they say illuminates what otherwise operated in the shadows.
It’s the light here that’s shocking, as we long suspected what was happening under the cover of night. To finally see it up close and in person, in federal court papers, takes your breath away.
But are we really surprised that what’s been whispered about, suggested and assumed is, apparently, actually taking place? Of course not. And for a lot of reasons.
The most obvious cause is simply the money at stake.
On the college side, there are tens of millions of dollars flowing through athletic departments from television contracts, donations, ticket sales, merchandise and whatever else schools can slap a price tag on. That money translates into multi-million dollar contracts for head coaches and six-figure deals for assistants, who are in turn chasing those multi-million dollar head coaching jobs in large part on their ability to secure top-end talent. Coaches don’t move up the ladder without players.
On the financial side, once players go pro, there are potentially hundreds of millions up for grabs. With agents in line to grab a percentage of contracts and endorsements and financial advisors potentially managing those nine-figure sums, there is considerable dough to be made.
What was on display today in those charging documents, though, was the black market largely created by amateurism.
By shutting the door on players getting paid – either by schools or outside entities – NCAA rules have created space for these illicit activities to not only exist, but apparently become commonplace, if you want to take assistant FBI director William Sweeney at his word.
“We have your playbook,” Sweeney said of larger-scale investigation into corruption in hoops.
If players could be paid, again not just necessarily by schools but by third parties, there would be no need to pass the money off through middlemen whose only real asset is proximity to talent and youth whose NCAA eligibility depends on not taking money over the table. If an agent could take a prospect out to a steak dinner, give him a Rolex and some walking around money as a gesture to later get him to sign, there is less oxygen for third-party middlemen. If players got a piece of apparel contracts, there’s less incentive for sneaker companies to buy their loyalty illicitly.
With the money at stake here, it would probably be impossible to ever legislate or prosecute away shadiness and corruption, but NCAA amateurism rules create an ecosystem for the slimiest organisms to survive and thrive. It takes agency away from players and even institutions to police their sport. How can a school – or even the NCAA at large – be expected to rein in multi-billion dollar shoe companies? Or keep tabs on cash transactions that take place in Los Angeles, Morgantown, Miami and anywhere else an agent, coach, sleaze or slimeball can fly with a thick envelope? It took the feds a cooperating witness, undercover agents and wiretaps to get done. The NCAA doesn’t, and never will, have those tools at its disposal.
This isn’t to excuse or minimize the alleged crimes committed here. These adults knew what they were doing. They, allegedly, made their own choices with at least a theoretical understanding of the potential consequences. They’re the symptom of what amateurism has created, though.
The money big-time college basketball generates is real. It’s also partially artificially inflated because by the simple fact of cutting players – and their families – out, there’s that same amount of cash with fewer people to claim it. That allows things to get ugly, first on the fringes and then further and further to the center of things as the practice becomes a playbook.
Outlaw something and you create outlaws. Fighting the power of capitalism and the simple economic principle of supply and demand is always going to be in a losing effort. Most of the time that tradeoff is acceptable and necessary. Keeping cash out of young basketball players’ hands to prop up an antiquated amateurism model in which so many people get so much doesn’t seem like a trade worth making.
To see the FBI invade the space of college basketball is truly shocking.
Given how that space has been allowed to fester for years though, it’s not really all that surprising.