The NCAA’s amateurism model creates black market that allow corruption to exist

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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.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.