The Shame of College Basketball
We’ve known about this for some time now.
People involved in college basketball have known about the shoe deals, the under the table payments, and the fact that many of the “amateurs” in college basketball are really paid professionals.
The major shoe companies—Nike, Adidas and Under Armour—shell out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to sponsor college athletic programs. The goal is simple. If the top players at the top schools are seen on TV and social media wearing their shoes, more people will want to buy them. It started back in the day when everyone wanted to “Be Like Mike” (Jordan), which led to the creation of the Jordan Brand and made Michael the richest athlete in the world.
Jordan isn’t the only one who’s gotten rich. Today, hundreds of top players receive lucrative endorsement deals. Top coaches also have individual agreements. That’s all above board.
The sleazy side stems from direct payments made from shoe companies to assistant coaches, financial advisers, agents, players and families to influence star athletes to commit to the right colleges (as in, the ones wearing our shoes).
You’d like to think that players choose shoes, and colleges sign with specific shoe companies, on the basis of the quality of the shoe. Think again. It’s big business, and the stakes are very high. Consider these reported payments to some of the top athletic programs in the nation from the top shoe companies.
UCLA: $280 million for 15 years—Under Armour
Ohio State: $252 million for 15 years—Nike
Texas: $250 million for 15 years—Nike
Michigan: $163 million for 15 years—Nike
Louisville: $160 million for 10 years—Adidas
We bring this up because a few days ago, after a two-year investigation, the FBI arrested 10 men on a variety of financial corruption charges, including bribery and fraud. Those arrested included a top executive at Adidas, several prominent agents, and four assistant basketball coaches who were involved in schemes to influence players to sign with certain universities, shoes and agents.
So the worst kept secret in sports, what we knew but couldn’t prove, is now out in the open. What U.S. Attorney Joon Kim referred to as “the dark underbelly of college basketball.”
Not surprisingly, there were some familiar names and familiar programs involved. The assistant coaches worked at Arizona, Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma State.
The same Auburn whose head coach, Bruce Pearl, was previously fired for a truckload of recruiting violations at Tennessee. Bruce started his career in costume as the Eagle mascot at Boston College under Tom Davis. I worked with Bruce when he was an assistant at Stanford. We started the Cage Club together, and I went to his home one year to watch the Super Bowl. Bruce is a charming, engaging guy. But he got caught up in the cesspool that college basketball has become.
This is the sport, after all, that has popularized the “one and done” scheme, where high school players can commit to a school, play for one year, and then turn pro. But in reality, they only go to school for one quarter or one semester, because basketball season only lasts until March. And this is supposed to be higher education.
The big news today was the demise of famed Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, who has heretofore survived some pretty tawdry scandals. In 2010 a woman tried to blackmail Pitino to keep her quiet about an affair (which he acknowledged) involving some extracurricular activity on a table top in a restaurant. The woman was the wife of Pitino’s equipment manager. Then in 2015, the school was penalized after a former assistant coach arranged for strippers and prostitutes to have sex with Louisville players and recruits. Pitino claimed this was done without his knowledge.
Pitino survived because he kept winning. He won an NCAA championship, reached the Final Four three times and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. And the Louisville basketball program reportedly made $27 million in 2015-16, the last year for which numbers are available.
But Pitino couldn’t survive this week’s FBI findings that an Adidas executive and one his assistant coaches conspired to pay $100,000 to a top recruit to get him to attend Louisville.
The FBI investigation is ongoing. Not every school is guilty of these practices. Far from it. But there are a lot of administrators, coaches and assistant coaches throughout the country who are feeling very nervous today.
The sleaze has been exposed, the illusion of amateurism has been destroyed, and the stench is getting stronger.