“The schools are, in a way, the victims.”
At Tuesday’s press conference in lower Manhattan, United States Attorney Joon Kim said these words. He wasn’t kidding, he didn’t smile, and he proceeded to unveil a pair of cardboard displays that showed the dastardly circle of money, the one that is supposedly about to change the fabric of college sports as we know it. The casual fans clutched their pearls; anyone who’s dared look critically at the business of college sports for more than five minutes shrugged their shoulders; assistant coaches around the nation immediately hung up their phones.
Of course, nobody knew about this. Not Rick Pitino, not a single one of the athletic directors, not NCAA president Mark Emmert, not Brian Bowen’s mom. That’s because every single person complicit in this system has been conditioned to respond properly in situations like these—situations, I might add, that are no more revelatory today than they were in 2011 when a lawsuit thoroughly explained how Michael Beasley was used by his AAU coach and Adidas starting at 14 years old.
Since Walter Byers took charge of the NCAA in 1951, the operation has tasked itself with weeding out the nefarious folks who would dare profit off college sports and share any of the money with the athletes. At yesterday’s press conference, Kim laid out what he called “the dark underbelly of college basketball,” detailing how the FBI caught four big-time assistant coaches steering recruits to agents and financial advisors that paid them to do so. He also laid out just how Adidas—and now Nike and soon to be every major shoe company—dominates the recruiting circuit, putting on camps and tournaments and then paying recruits to attend the schools with which they have apparel deals.
Make no doubt, this investigation is a massive waste of taxpayer money. By spending two years tapping the phones of numerous agents, coaches, and Adidas officials, the feds discovered what any yokel has known for years—college basketball recruiting is a shady, unregulated business. It’s one where the middleman isn’t an agent or lawyer (as is the case in any reasonable profession) but the fucking assistant coaches, the ones also tasked with spending half their year on the road snagging the best recruits money apparently shouldn’t buy before herding them off to nefarious agents and financial advisors come the second half of their year.
By following through on this case, the Justice Department and the USAO have done nothing but give the NCAA a victory—a double-edged victory, but a victory nonetheless. While the bad PR hurts, the government is doing the NCAA’s work for it, almost literally carrying its water. The government is legitimizing the imbalanced market the NCAA has long championed. When Kim declined to take a position on the matter of college amateurism restrictions and claimed that all he does is prosecute law-breakers, he breathed life into the bloated carcass that is the NCAA amateurism system.
The feds are doing what the NCAA has failed and refused to do. By constantly combatting the notion that college athletes in these increasingly lucrative sports deserve to be recognized as paid professionals, the NCAA simultaneously helped create and outlaw a billion-dollar market. Instead of a world where this market is legalized and regulated, we are now subject to an investigation that just swaps out nouns. “Bribe” is put where “signing bonus” should be, “fraud” is in place of “negotiate,” and the actual government is put in a place where it’s enforcing the NCAA’s arbitrary and bullshit rules as if they were the word of God.
When Kim and the FBI speak of the $100,000 “bribe” made by Jim Gatto, director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas, to Louisville player Brian Bowen, what they’re actually discussing is a “signing bonus” that Bowen earned by being one of the best high school players in the entire nation. When they discuss coaches like Chuck Person committing “fraud” by allowing a player to receive both financial aid from Auburn and a payment for his future commitment to a certain agent or advisor, they’re purposefully ignoring the player’s right to receive both if they qualify.
For Tuesday’s maddening press conference to have been avoided, though, would have required the reality of the college athlete experience as we know it to be completely reimagined at some point well before now. This wouldn’t have been circumvented by simply allowing schools to pay athletes a percentage of their jersey sales or a tidy signing bonus, the kinds of band-aid solutions schools and the NCAA have bandied about in the recent past; it would have required what’s been necessary in college sports for at least 20 years. Elite high school athletes, especially in the football and basketball business, need and deserve legal representation sitting with them when they sign to schools. They need and deserve a voice in their corner that isn’t the head coach telling them why they should stay another year or which agent they should sign with at the annual end-of-year chat—someone who can best advise them on their personal and business decisions. Would this completely alter the game? Would this create more hoops for coaches and schools to jump through to get an 18-year-old to make a massively important decision? Yes, and that’s the point. This sort of change would be great and long overdue.
Instead of a player like Beasley being subject to the whims of whichever school or agent ended up as the first or highest bidder that comes to his AAU coach or parents, he would have a representative that would sit down with him starting at the close of his junior year of high school and review any college offers, shoe deal proposals, or advisor offers that had been sent his way. Should one of those people, say, renege on an offer or attempt to subvert him and pay one of his coaches to make an unwise decision, he would then have a legitimate opportunity to defend himself legally without fearing losing his NCAA eligibility the moment he admitted to taking any of the above actions.
Instead, we get this: An investigation into the shadows where the silhouettes have been plainly outlined for decades. Clearly, it’s a bad thing when coaches are taking money and then steering athletes toward a guy that swung at ’Nique courtside (pay your suit bills, though, ’Nique) or an agent who stole $42,000 in Uber rides from a client. Of course it’s bad! It’s also the inevitable outcome of regulation meant to direct money and profit to people in power creating a black market. This is always what was going to happen; it’s the nature of the NCAA. No black market is going to end up with a ton of empathetic characters controlling the money.
If the NCAA allowed athletes to have representation throughout college and then transition to a professional career, it could foster a transparent environment, the quirks and contours of which are defined by qualified representatives of the athletes, be they union representatives or agents. Coaches would be forced to care about where and how they shepherd their players as they move to the next level because they would be presented with an adversarial force representing interests other than those of the program.
And that is where a worthwhile NCAA could find its use—it could regulate the world of Olympic sports and a theoretical professional college league that allows its athletes to be paid for their labor; ensure players access to representation because it’s sensible and legally required; and facilitate players working directly with Adidas, Nike, or Reebok, because it’s their money to spend as they like, and it’s the players’ bank accounts that could use the money a hell of a lot more than schools do. Tired of seeing your school roll out locker rooms with TVs and arcades or dumb, giant slides, or lazy rivers, because they have so much money they don’t know what to do with it but can’t give it to the players you watch every week? Then work towards changing it—call your schools, stop donating money, I don’t know. But right now, the NCAA, despite the bad rash of PR, is having the U.S. Attorney’s Office take care of the dirty work it created by being a selfish, unmoving barricade that has only ever taken any action when it thought it had to because of public pressure. College athletics is ruled by a body that would rather spend years looking into fake classes or stand by while member schools promote campus leaders who blame sexual assault victims for drinking too much than spend a minute interrogating the ways in which that body’s existence facilitates, if not causes, the problems it purports to want to solve.
The always-dramatic Sonny Vaccaro told Yahoo Sports’s Pete Thamel that this was “the day college basketball lost its virginity.” Considering the past two years have fielded stories such as somehow still-disastrous Baylor sexual assault scandal and the Louisville escort recruiting scandal—both programs still allowed to compete in Power Five leagues!—I feel safe saying Vaccaro’s being a bit over-the-top.
This isn’t surprising, and while the case does indeed have the ability to rattle the college recruiting business to its core, that’s only going to be good for a few years of cleaner activity before someone figures out a more convoluted way to smuggle athletes money. Did nobody notice yesterday how incredibly nonchalant all these coaches, agents, and executives were being in their communications? They weren’t trying all that hard to hide it because damn near every blue blood does it and has done it for years. Now that the feds are poking around, the payments and steering won’t be as bold, but it will still be there. As long as there are millions to be made off college athletes and a prohibition on the athletes themselves from directly being paid for the money they generate, we will continue to find ourselves back here, reading a case about some school or coach or businessman getting in trouble essentially for paying a player what they’re worth.
And when that day comes, do you really want you tax dollars still going to pay for the FBI to covertly listen to more conversations about dick swinging?
No, or at least I hope not. Because the reality is that the answer lies where it’s been for decades—the NCAA can step up (or, more likely, be forced by the government or an athlete strike) and start giving their premier athletes their due, or they can rest on their fat haunches and continue to rake in the March Madness money while high school and college athletes take advice to some guy that will be their boss for one-to-four years. If it’s the latter, which it almost assuredly will be, then expect more lawsuits, more arrests, and more “a few bad actors” quotes, because college sports aren’t slowing down, and anyone who thinks the FBI is going to clean up shop is hilariously misguided. Now, it’s just a matter of whether the powers that be will ever find a conscience and allow the athletes to catch up.