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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Unraveling of College Basketball

I am a consumer of college sports.  I played college sports, and I love watching them.  Even sports I never had any hope of playing, like basketball.  I have always known deep down inside that high level collegiate sports were corrupt, exploitative, dehumanizing, etc … just plain dirty—but I have still watched.  And as a faculty member at a university that loves and exalts its sports teams, I have enjoyed at least some small part of the significant financial benefit those sports can bestow.   As a former high school coach, I have even convinced myself that sports offer a unique and valuable kind of education—lessons about teamwork, character, commitment, etc.   But, as I have watched the underground economy of college basketball unearthed and exposed over the past few days—and this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg—I can’t help but interrogate myself and my complicity in all of it.

If you haven’t been watching, the FBI yesterday announced the indictment of several assistant coaches at major universities, as well as managers, financial advisers, and a top marketing executive at Adidas.  Basically, the feds have assembled a mountain of evidence—wire taps, financial footprints, undercover agent encounters, witness statements—tying these folks to various bribery and kickback schemes related to recruiting, endorsements, and representation.  In one case, Adidas paid a five-star recruit $100,000 to attend a school with which it had an endorsement contract.  In others, assistant coaches was paid to steer student athletes to particular agents or endorsements as they entered the NBA draft.  Famed Louisville coach Rick Pitino seems to have already lost his job, as has his athletic director.  People are going to go to prison.

Again, this is the tip of the iceberg.  The FBI is investigating many other programs, and several other corporations—at least Nike and Under Armor.  And in reality, this is likely to keep growing on many different levels, and into other sports.  It will undoubtedly eventually land at the doorstep of the highly-paid head coaches that the “assistant coaches” were meant to insulate.  It will also reach down, I hope and believe, into the unseemly world of AAU basketball, high school recruiting, and the substantial money that surrounds it.  This is not like other scandals investigated and punished by the NCAA.  This is the feds.  Not only do they have subpoena power, and the power to put people in prison; they also lack a vested interest in propping up the industry or its cash cows.  Once these indicted folks start to make deals to keep themselves out of jail, there is no telling how much dirt comes out.  In short, this truly threatens to unravel the basic economic structure of college basketball.

One thought I’ve seen expressed is that this may finally shatter the illusion of amateurism the NCAA works so hard to preserve.  Maybe the student athletes will finally be recognized as the revenue generators they are; and maybe they will even get paid.  Or maybe it’ll go the other direction, and a “Czar” will oversee some massive crackdown.  I don’t know—but I do know that the massive amount of money involved in collegiate athletics virtually guarantees that some form of corruption will always exists.   And as I contemplate my own role—as a faculty member—in this mess, I can’t help but wonder if it would be better if universities were simply forbidden from making a profit off of athletics.  I know, I know.  And I know that grant seeking etc. is vulnerable to corruption, too.  I guess the bottom line is that I’m just having a hard time stomaching what I see unfolding now—and I don’t really have any good ideas about how I might feel better about it.

Posted by Ian Bartrum on September 27, 2017 at 05:09 PM | Permalink


"When you couple that with the sex, race and poverty features of the exploited group, I think it gets all the worse."

I agree that when it was only white men playing in college sports, it wasn't exploitative or corrupt. But when you don't pay women athletes or black athletes then it becomes immoral.

Like with slavery. When the Brits enslaved the Irish and the Scots, that was disgusting, but acceptable. When they started enslaving blacks, it became a moral issue.

Posted by: Serena W | Sep 30, 2017 2:20:45 PM

I think there is more agreement than disagreement here. As I think I suggested in the original post, I agree that the "amateurism" hypocrisy is the root of the problem. Whether the FBI is using its resources wisely in this investigation, I don't really know.

To my mind, it is descriptively true that big time universities are doing at least two separate things: (1) Teaching students; and (3) Running pro sports teams. (They are also running profitable research institutions, of course). There is no inherent problem with schools making money in different ways, as a rising tide may float all the relevant boats. But--I agree--the problem lies in the exploitation of the labor that generates the revenue on the pro sports side. The enforced amateurism maximizes the school profits--at the expense of the athletes--and also creates a shadow, or at least under-regulated, economy in which the athletes and their families are susceptible to even more exploitation. When you couple that with the race and poverty features of the exploited group, I think it gets all the worse.

I guess my hope is that the FBI investigation prompts some substantial change in the model, but for the reasons Pierce points out, I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Ian Bartrum | Sep 30, 2017 12:56:08 AM

Charles Pierce sums it up nicely: https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2017/09/29/college-basketball-corruption-scandal

Posted by: juniorprof | Sep 29, 2017 9:49:20 PM

You mean those competitor programs that play by the self imposed rules that require them to not pay the workers that bring them millions of dollars?

Are we next going to have the FBI do an in depth investigation to determine if prostitutes are cheating pimps?

I don't see why my tax dollars should be going to help enforce the rules that enable exploitation. The more holes in the "amateurism" system the better.

Posted by: brad | Sep 29, 2017 8:56:55 PM

And I do tend to agree that the player payment is a little less troublesome, but the victims there are the competitor programs that play by the rules and lose out on recruits... if such creatures (play by the rules schools) actually exist...

Posted by: Ian Bartrum | Sep 29, 2017 7:44:21 PM

I wouldn't describe most of this stuff as victimless, especially when you get down to the AAU level. Maybe this link helps explain and answer Nicholas's question as well...


The FBI is much more interested in the fraud and bribery than in any abuse of 501(c)(3) exemptions.

Posted by: Ian Bartrum | Sep 29, 2017 7:38:39 PM

Why is the FBI wasting money on victimless crimes? Steering to a financial adviser, fine that's a real crime. But paying students to go to a particular school, where's the harmed party?

The colleges hate their workers so much not only do they refuse to pay them but they won't let anyone else either.

Posted by: brad | Sep 29, 2017 7:07:48 PM

This is where I ask for a bit of legal analysis, as IANAL.

The big concern I see for college sports on this list is the connection between for-profit marketing and non-profit educational institutions. Or, put another way, that IRS-categorized non-profit entities might be receiving money from profit entities to do their marketing. I am curious as to what level of connection might be found that would cause the IRS to directly question a non-profit status, which would essentially be a tipping point since donations to a non-profit are tax deductible (and thus desirable) and donations to a for-profit are not.

Posted by: Nicholas Eckert | Sep 29, 2017 9:46:41 AM

Great post.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 28, 2017 1:43:05 PM

Too bad it's not news... or confined to so-called "revenue sports," in which case an investigation of this nature might actually be manageable and produce some lasting change.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Sep 28, 2017 10:30:51 AM

I hope you are right that this goes down to AAU, EYBL, etc . Pernicious.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 27, 2017 5:46:34 PM

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