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Dark day for college basketball also presents golden opportunity

September 29, 2017 Columns No Comments

Sometimes news comes out that is so stunning, so unexpected, so…damning, that it takes a while to digest it. The FBI’s report on Tuesday about college basketball coaches being arrested in an unprecedented bribery case certainly was such news.

It took some time to wrap one’s head around just what was reported. Cheating in college sports, of course, isn’t new. Some think that everyone does it.

They don’t. It makes a fun story, but it’s not true. It certainly does happen, though, especially in college basketball, where stories of shady folk take on mythic, sometimes almost comical proportions. To this day, names like Myron Piggie or Richie “The Fixer” Perry seem to bring snickers and chuckles in the sport more than regret.

Tuesday, though, was a whole different animal. This is the FBI. The Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI has infinitely more power to find information than the NCAA, which regularly meets resistance from the same schools that vote to approve the rules the NCAA tries to enforce.

This is real. The FBI doesn’t indict on rumors or accusations or message board rantings or wild, juicy stories. The FBI deals in facts.

As Tuesday went on, it was almost impossible to comprehend just how big this is, or could be. It felt big right then and there, but there also were promises from the feds that there may be a lot more coming.

The story has the potential to be every bit as massive as the point shaving scandals in the sport in the 1940s and 50s, ones that led to the diminishment of powerhouse programs like CCNY and LIU and even the death penalty for Kentucky for one year in 1952-53, more than 30 years before SMU’s football program famously received the same sentence.

We knew this is a big deal. But throughout it all Tuesday, it felt like something was glossed over: why is this a big deal?

We honestly were waiting Tuesday for the first person to ask why this scheme is a problem. We could picture it: “Why is funneling money to (allegedly) victimized high school and college athletes a bad thing?”

Maybe it’s just that no one had the guts to say it aloud right away. Maybe there is still enough respect for the law to not question it. Maybe people were so stunned, too, that it took them time to gather their bearings and line up their angle of attack. (Some did ask the question in the days to follow, but most did so honestly, not cynically.)

The truth is, it is a fair question. Why would the FBI be worried about if people are slipping money to talented young athletes, who deserve the money anyway, if we’re to believe some?

As the FBI explained, the feds have every right to get involved in this because the institutions the coaches indicted work under receive federal funds. Pretty simple, cut and dry.

But why ultimately do they receive federal funds?

Hint: it’s not to see how many times ESPN will fall for showing Duke in a season, whether the Blue Devils are playing North Carolina or North Carolina A&T.

Of course, the reason colleges receive federal money is for education. And as benign as that might sound, it’s something that, more than anything else, needs to be brought front and center at this time.

It’s a fact that seems to be forgotten too often: competitive as it is, filthy in cash as it is-at end of day, college sports still is ultimately about education and forming young people. It may be (understandably) hard to remember with all the millions and billions floating around and stoking cynicism, but it’s still the case. If it wasn’t, the tax exemption college athletics receives would’ve been gone long ago.

We’ve often felt there’s a level of hypocrisy when someone underestimates the educational component of college athletics. If a full 4-5 year athletic scholarship is really nothing more than a cheap booby prize, then those prominent figures taking regular potshots at college athletics should’ve been demanding major colleges’ tax exemption be revoked years ago. Of course, this wouldn’t get them near as many Twitter followers, so it’s not nearly as much fun to talk about.

The terrific opportunity for a free college education, though still respected by some and maybe even many, has too often been ingrained now as an afterthought, and that goes all the way to high school/AAU prospects and their families.

Kids are brought up in a system where they are so accustomed to handlers and jumping AAU teams every year and always looking to ‘improve their brand’, that all the business decisions have jaded them by their mid-teens. Which churns out situations such as Louisville recruit Brian Bowen becoming among the many notable goats in this scandal, and families demanding that “we need our (expletive) money.

It’s a shame. Not because 18-year olds like Bowen are victims-they are seen as adults by now, after all. But because a detestable system hasn’t done much to help them when they are growing up into adults.

Regardless of what college sports have oft seemed to be, that doesn’t change what they should be about, as long as their sponsors are benefiting from tax exemptions. Education, caring for and guiding our youth-they all matter. The FBI apparently still feels so.

As such, it means as dark as Tuesday was, it also was a great day. Because golden opportunity now abounds to make college basketball better, to make this closer to the sport it should be, and to do better for our youth.

Never in recent memory has there been a better time to push for positive changes in this sport, and push hard. The cheats are nervous now, waiting to see how many more shoes drop with the FBI. They are in retreat. Those who want better: the time is now. There may never be a better chance than this.

Coaches who do things right, believe in the ideals of college sport and want a clean game have an opportunity to wield their power, to band together and insist on better from their colleagues, to take leadership roles. It’s incumbent on them to do so, to speak up, just as Southeast Missouri State coach Rick Ray did on Tuesday.

It would help, too, if the National Association of Basketball Coaches spent a little less time discussing how to get the NCAA to expand the tournament field to theoretically save a few more jobs, and more on promoting “ideals of integrity, sportsmanship and teamwork among men’s basketball coaches and the players they coach,” as the organization lists as its first purpose.

As the excellent ESPN analyst Mark Adams (who has been as out in front of this as anyone) has noted, this is not the time for silence. This is the time for coaches to set the course for what they want their profession to be about. Do they want to be seen as teachers and molders of young people? Or do they want to be seen as a group that willingly attempts to circumvent federal laws if it gets them ahead?

The same goes for administrators, those who Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel rightly criticized are the ones who have led college basketball down this wayward path, far more even than perceived bureaucrats with the NCAA. They can start by showing they value coaches who do things right, and also show they care about the student-athletes playing for them, by putting an end to the practice of regularly firing coaches after 3-4 years if they haven’t been a smashing success.

A big part of the pressure aspect of major college basketball is that, if coaches don’t win and win soon, they know they’ll be fired. Among all the reasons being listed for coaches cheating, this one seems to be regularly glossed over. It shouldn’t be. The vast majority of those coaches moving after every season are doing it because they’re fired or resigning under pressure, not because they’re jumping to the next bigger job as is oft assumed.

The biggest opportunity, though, goes to the NCAA. And it better not blow this one.

The NCAA has notably gone soft in sanctioning major programs in recent years, almost certainly scared off by 1) hissy fits and threats of lawsuits these schools (ahem, Louisville) have brought forth every time they are sanctioned even lightly and 2) the thinly veiled threats (we might say bluffs) that these schools if not appeased will someday leave the NCAA to form their own association.

The NCAA also never had the FBI with its backs and doing dirty work, though, like it does now. The heat is on the NCAA now to show it still has the stones to punish major rule breakers.

Hammering cheaters-with multi-year postseason bans, television bans, maybe even the death penalty-is the number one way for the NCAA to deter cheating. Make the punishment for cheating greater than the reward. If it can’t do so now with the FBI basically providing all the ammo it needs, then the organization will be fully revealed as 100% impotent and powerless in governing major college sports. Simple as that.

Even now, this won’t be easy. Wholesale change will be far from a cinch. Already, some are working against it, trying to deflect what happened this week by blaming it all on the NCAA’s amateurism rules, under the faulty and incredibly naïve premise that anarchy really is best, and unsavory acts will stop if we just stop calling them such. That cynical take is a horrendous message for teenagers still finding their way in this world.

Also, anyone who is realistic knows it will be impossible to clean up everything. Someone will always be looking to gain an edge. Sometimes they’ll skirt the rules. We live in a fallen world. It’s what people do.

Even if everything can’t be cleaned up, though, it is imperative that we try. Bare minimum, those involved in higher education should feel a moral responsibility to it, to set the agenda for what collegiate sports should stand for. Rather than letting others set the agenda for them.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy. This entire episode will serve as daily proof of that in the sport for years.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire for better. The sport deserves better. Most importantly, the young athletes participating in it deserve better.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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