The Hot Corner
Issue   |   Tue, 03/06/2018 - 21:20

Late last month, Yahoo Sports revealed some of the results of an FBI probe into corruption in NCAA men’s basketball. According to documents the Bureau acquired over a years-long investigation, at least 25 collegiate programs have given impermissible benefits to current players or handed out bribes to high school athletes whom they were attempting to recruit.

The documents Yahoo released were requests for reimbursement filed by Christian Dawkins, an associate at ASM Sports, an agency run by former NBA agent Andy Miller. Dawkins was arrested last year and charged with felony wire fraud and bribery. The benefits he doled out range from the mundane to the outrageous.

Some of the documents detail expenses as inconsequential as a $70 lunch with a recruit’s parents. However, a wiretap also recorded Dawkins and University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller discussing a $100,000 payment to current Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton, offered in exchange for his commitment to the school.

Among the more amusing entries is a $400 advance made to current Spurs G-League forward and All-Name team nominee Jaron Blossomgame — via Venmo. We have come a long way since the days of wads of bills in brown paper bags.

These allegations, which have produced charges in three criminal cases, have left a haze of confusion in their wake. For one thing, it is somewhat unclear how the FBI has nothing better to do than conduct a years-long probe into NCAA violations, tracking down who did or did not receive a moderately overpriced lunch on a university or agent’s dime.

Not since Andy Pettitte testified before the United States Congress — about whether it was Roger Clemens or his wife who had maybe used HGH — has an arm of the federal government been so interested in rule breaking in sports.

It is also an unpleasant revelation that cheating in basketball is grounds for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to listen to your phone calls.

Further, it is doubtful that the NCAA will get its hands on all of the FBI’s information. What Yahoo revealed was only a small fraction of what the Bureau has uncovered, yet only documents relating to criminal cases will become publicly available. The rest will remain the sealed products of an FBI investigation. Meanwhile the NCAA has kept at a safe distance from the FBI, careful not to step on the toes of a criminal investigation.

Whatever the long-term effects, which are becoming less long-term as the national tournament approaches, the immediate consequences have not been trivial.
In addition to Dawkins, several others have been arrested and handed felony corruption indictments. This includes former assistant coaches from Arizona, Auburn University, Oklahoma State University and the NCAA’s bete noir, the University of Southern California.

Charges were also filed against a financier, clothing and shoe brand executives and an AAU coach. Former University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino lost his job, as did the school’s athletic director (though their team’s indiscretions were, let us say, especially remarkable). Sean Miller was held out of Arizona’s game against the University of Oregon, which Arizona lost. Other players have been suspended.

NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement that would make Jonathan Edwards blush.

“These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America,” Emmert said.

“Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”
Last year, he and the NCAA created the Independent Commission on College Basketball, headed by, of all people, Condoleezza Rice.

If Mark Emmert’s shock and awe is genuine, he seems to have been left out of the loop. That recruits receive under the table benefits came as a surprise to very few. Most have always assumed that this was part of the recruiting game, that a recruiter’s “living room pitch” was made a good bit more appealing if it involved covering the electric bill.

What Emmert likely wants is to preserve the image that these payments are the deeds of a few dirty coaches and agents, tarnishing a system that otherwise would be clean. The alternative is much scarier for the association. As the NCAA approaches its biggest money-maker of the year, the men’s Division I national tournament, Yahoo’s revelations threaten to blow open the NCAA’s intractable opprobrium for compensating student-athletes.

Of the 25 teams implicated in the FBI findings, most will qualify for the tournament. Several are contenders to win the national championship. In fact, four of the top five teams in the most recent AP Poll are alleged to have in some way violated NCAA regulations.

If these allegations of payment were to be proven, and the NCAA decides to maintain its complete opposition to these types of dealings and stand by its claim that “people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports,” it must, one imagines, take stern measures against these teams. This would likely mean suspending many players and coaches, if not vacating teams’ appearances in the tournament.

The NCAA should learn now what it has tried so hard not to learn for so many years. It is better to bend and not break. NCAA regulations attempt to control student-athletes’ lives so closely that the body cannot reasonably enforce them without looking absurd.

This has, in the past, included a prohibition on putting certain types of spreads on bagels, a delicacy which few thought was reserved for professional athletes. Now regulations determine exactly how many meals a university can provide its athletes, though it has taken a much more relaxed position on “snacks.”

It would take very little for the NCAA’s authoritarian stance to become much more reasonable. A stipend, perhaps, and opportunities for policies resembling workman’s compensation for athletes, whose universities reduce their academic lives to classes on floral arrangement at best and purely imaginary “paper classes” at worst, and who stand to lose everything with a single bad injury.

This would still be far less than would be needed to reflect the incredible wealth these athletes produce for the NCAA (Emmert made about $2 million in total compensation last year), their coaches (the highest-paid government employee in most states is a football or basketball coach), their universities and the television networks.

Still, a set of policies that is only slightly more flexible would make NCAA rules much easier to enforce and could let the FBI return to some more important work.