I’m a college basketball fanatic. That means I’ll be joining millions of Americans this month in a quest to muffle the economic boom by devoting our energies to filling out and following March Madness brackets.
My alma mater, Wake Forest, is out of the championship tournament, so I’ll cheer for my boyhood team, Villanova, and my wife’s school, Duke. I’ll spend more than a dozen hours watching the games.
But my enthusiasm is tempered this year by a painful truth: The game is tarnished by corruption and shame.
The latest evidence came five months ago with news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had indicted sports agents and assistant coaches while subpoenaing records from a number of colleges in a bribery and fraud investigation.
It’s legitimate to ask whether the FBI should be policing violations of rules promulgated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. But even if you don’t think so, the resulting scandal is the biggest to hit the sport since the early 1950s, when a bribery scheme unfolded at City College in New York and then mushroomed to encompass seven schools and 32 players around the country.
The perfect illustration of the gap between the on-court beauty of the college game and its off-court rot is the Atlantic Coast Conference, long considered the most prestigious. Three of its members, the University of Louisville, the University of Miami and North Carolina State University, are ensnared in the FBI investigation.
There are also serious charges tainting schools unaffected by the FBI probe. Last year, for example, the NCAA suspended Syracuse University’s head basketball coach, Jim Boeheim, for nine games for multiple violations.
Then there’s the University of North Carolina, one of the crown jewels of college basketball. Investigative reporting and an internal inquiry revealed that many athletes there were allowed to take fake courses to maintain their eligibility to play sports. What did the NCAA do in response? Nothing.
There may be no more admirable basketball program than the one at Duke, and no more respected coach than that university’s Mike Krzyzewski. Even there, the concept of the student-athlete is debased. Consider: The star Blue Devil is Marvin Bagley III. He was supposed to be a high school senior this year but last summer accelerated his courses to arrive at Duke shortly after the fall semester began. After a spectacular season, he’ll leave in a month or so for the National Basketball Association. It’s all fully within the rules that long ago turned great universities into minor-league sports-training venues.
Equally unfortunate: Of the 15 ACC coaches, who can potentially earn a combined $40 million a year, only two are African-American. The majority of players are African-Americans who get almost nothing, at least legally. Most will never collect an NBA paycheck.
There are potential correctives. The NBA should expand a minor league so that kids who are not ready for the pros can make decent money as they mature. To honor the term “student-athlete,” any basketball player who goes to college on a scholarship should have to wait two to three years before becoming eligible for the pros (that’s how baseball and football do it). There should be a concerted effort to crack down on the hustlers: agents, Amateur Athletic Union coaches and sneaker company representatives.
The NCAA has engaged former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to lead a reform effort. But she won’t be able to change anything that threatens the multibillion-dollar college sports money machine.
Here’s how bad it is. Rick Pitino, one of college basketball’s winningest coaches at Kentucky and Louisville — he won NCAA championships at both — presided over a program that offered prostitutes to young recruits. The NCAA erased dozens of Louisville wins in response to that scandal, but Pitino kept his job until being fired last fall amid the FBI probe. He denies any wrongdoing and says he wants another coaching job. Does anyone doubt there will be takers?
Still, I’ll eagerly fill out my brackets. When it comes to college basketball, it’s heart over head. It’ll be Villanova and Duke in the semifinals on March 31.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.