I’ve been saying it for years and years and years. So that means for decades.
To be a fan of college sports is akin to being in love with a hooker. As Ellington would say, I know she’s bad, and that ain’t good. I am hopelessly enchanted by her charms.
College sport, specifically Division 1 college basketball, is in the news these days, and that sure ain’t good. There is massive cheating in the form of outright bribery on several levels and the only people who are shocked — shocked! — to discover this are those who weren’t paying attention. The difference this time is that instead of the operative final word being “suspended,” the next operative final word is “arrested.” This means the final, final operative word might just be “convicted,” and the final, final, final operative word could be “incarcerated.” The ante has been upped, big time.
Now why the feds are involved is another matter (they discovered this while investigating another crime), and now instead of the NCAA with its limited investigative powers we have the people armed with subpoena power and all the allied means to dig very deeply (wiretapping, for example).
We must begin with the premise that no other nation (aside from Japan, and then only college baseball) has its institutions of higher learning provide entertainment for the masses in the form of major sporting competition. Canada? Canadian sports are, at their peak, glorified Division 3. No, we stand alone. Elsewhere, adolescent athletes go to school if they choose, but when it comes to athletic fulfillment they join clubs. They may become what we would call “professionals” as early as 15 or 16. There is no pretense of “amateurism.”
America has chosen a different path. Collegiate competition began on Aug. 3, 1852, when a boat from Harvard squared off against boats (plural) from Yale at Lake Winnipesaukee. And it didn’t take long for a controversy to arise, when one of the schools — forgive me, I forgot which — accused the other of employing a coxswain who was not a student at that university. Yes, a “ringer.” Yes, “cheating.” It didn’t take long.
Harvard. How about that? Harvard was very much in the forefront of the system. Why, what was the first concrete edifice constructed to provide a spot for very serious intercollegiate competition, for which an appropriate fare was charged to spectators? It was Harvard Stadium, opened in 1903 and still in full operation.
Anyway, America quickly developed a taste for top-notch intercollegiate sport. By the late 19th century baseball and football were embedding themselves into the collegiate culture, and basketball followed nicely. From the start, chicanery was involved. So-called “tramp athletes” hired themselves out to the highest bidder, playing for one school this week and another the next. I am going to assume the patrons had the same basic reaction to this that the bulk of today’s college sports zealots have concerning the news of the day: Well, everybody’s doing it, and we want to win, dammit!
Pushing the envelope in regard to the existing rules has always been part of the deal. In the old days (right into the ’80s) it was usually no worse than a few extra bucks, perhaps provided by a booster, and maybe a no-show summer job. There have always been gut courses to help athletes slide through.
Things changed when the shoe companies got involved. Now we had an extra layer of trouble, basically uncontrollable. Throw in the rise of the AAU system, which has hijacked the development process of the adolescent basketball players from the high schools, and then introduce the agents. Throw it all in the collegiate salad bowl, mix it up with the inherent desire to win at any cost, and, well, you are now witness to the outcome. Indictments to follow.
Some readers will say, “Haven’t you been on this soapbox before?” The answer is yes. But has there ever been a more appropriate time to ask ourselves just what is it we should want and demand from college sports than right now, when the disgusting corruption endemic to the entire enterprise is on display for all the world to see?
Consider what’s at stake. College sports may be an even bigger business than we suspect. Just this past week the Wall Street Journal published a ranking of the top football programs in America in terms of financial worth. Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Texas are each valued at more than $1 billion. That’s “billion,” with a “b.” Yes, the sport in the news is basketball, not football, but we all know there is plenty of shady dealings going on in football, as well. I wonder what the going rate for a five-star quarterback or Von Miller-style pass rusher is right now.
The inarguable fact is that America has spoken and America wants college sports to continue as we have known it. Can you imagine the people waking up in Tuscaloosa to discover that Alabama football is no more? Or can you imagine people waking up in Lexington, Ky., to discover that Kentucky basketball is no more? It’s unthinkable. Those people don’t care who wins the American League East. They care about the Crimson Tide and the Wildcats. Their games are rallying points for the entire state. As an aside, it may very well be that the people off Louisville may soon be waking up to discover that Louisville basketball might be shut down for a while. Many are crying for the Cardinals to get the death penalty, and it’s not inconceivable.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup, I’m not sure they can handle the truth. Wouldn’t you love the pro basketball and football players to tell us all they know? On the current Celtics roster we’ve got players from such schools as California, Oklahoma State, Butler, Southern Methodist, Miami, Syracuse, Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Washington State, Arizona, Georgetown, Florida, Texas, and Duke. Not naming any names, but a couple of those schools are notorious for indulging in the most extreme form of, ahem, envelope-pushing. I’d like to ply some of our lads with either a beer or some truth serum.
I realize there are more pressing national concerns. We’ve got the leaders of two countries on the verge of double-dog-daring each other into a nuclear war. We’ve got needed relief efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. We’ve got to fix health care, once and for all, and we still need a sensible, fair tax policy. Most of all, we need to address the issue of race.
So when I say we should have a national summit conference of university presidents, athletic directors, politicians, prominent citizens, and athletes to decide just what is and isn’t appropriate for college athletics in this country, I realize that’s fairly far down the line of national priorities.
But we need one. We need one because what we have allowed to evolve is a national embarrassment. Perhaps I’m naive, but I think we can do better than this.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.