Sometimes I feel as if I should be in some sort of 12-step program.
That’s because I remain a fan of college sports, specifically college basketball.
The entire enterprise has become more and more difficult to defend as the years have gone by, and these latest revelations about payments and cheating of all kinds are disturbing. I may need a bag to place over my head before leaving the house.
Before we even address the latest batch of bad news, we must start with the sad admission that the defending NCAA men’s basketball champion has gotten away with an absolutely ludicrous mocking of all academic integrity and has been allowed to keep multiple championships while there was a colossal fraud being perpetrated. Oh, and let’s not forget that the 2013 championship won by Louisville has been “vacated” as well. What? Strippers and professional women being provided to players in the dorms was somehow a violation of NCAA rules? Who knew?
As you may have heard, upward of 25 schools have been identified as having made payments to players and/or families. The most shocking charge was that Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap allegedly discussing a payment of $100,000 to standout prospect DeAndre Ayton, a gifted 7-footer who will be taken very high in this year’s NBA Draft. Miller did not coach his team’s game at Oregon in mutual agreement with the university. Ayton, meanwhile, was “cleared” by school authorities and played in his team’s overtime loss that evening.
Arizona already has lost star player Allonzo Trier for two games because of a connection to PEDs. This is not your father’s or grandfather’s college basketball world. And since I may very well be old enough to be your father or grandfather, that means me.
Again I remind you that what we do is unique to America. No other country — and this includes our friendly neighbor to the north — has its institutions of higher learning provide entertainment to the masses. But big-time college sports is an important part of our 365-day sporting experience.
It is something that’s been present in my life since 1952, when my father became the assistant director of athletics at Villanova. My two foundation sports were major league baseball (my dad had multiple ties in that area) and college basketball. I first became aware of a phenomenon known as the NCAA basketball tournament circa 1954, and it was a big deal where I lived in Trenton, N.J., when La Salle, a Philadelphia school 40 miles or so from my house, won it all behind the great Tom Gola.
So I feel very proprietary about college basketball. I can’t imagine my winters without it.
And can you imagine for even an instant what it would be like in Lexington, Ky., if people awoke this morning to discover there was no more Wildcat basketball?
I ran some of this by Tom Brennan, who grew up in Phillipsburg, N.J., and has had a full college basketball experience as a player (Georgia), coach (seven schools, most notably Vermont from 1986-2005), commentator and, to this day, fan. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the college community more fair-minded, reasonable or well-liked. When he retired in 2005, the farewell party at the NCAA Tournament featured a Who’s Who of college basketball.
“I’m embarrassed,” Brennan admitted. “It’s been my whole life. I’ve made a living doing this. It’s doing the drip, drip thing as far as the FBI is concerned. We’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
He’s hardly shocked to learn what’s going on. As long as there have been college sports, envelopes have been pushed. But the nature of those “envelopes” has changed dramatically.
“Seth Greenberg [ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach] said something the other night I liked,” Brennan said. “He said that in the old days it was about refrigerators, cars, and cash. Now it’s about agents.”
How true. It’s also about the insidious AAU, which has hijacked the adolescent basketball experience from the high schools, and the shoe companies that in many instances finance the AAU. If any coach has aspirations to make the Final Four, he must lie in bed with the agents. Even Coach K.
Many people simplistically say the solution is to pay the kids directly. Sounds good. The problem is it is utterly unfeasible.
First of all, there are more than 340 Division 1 basketball schools, the bottom tier of which don’t have enough money to pay anybody anything. Then there is Title IX. What about the women? And how would this work? The alleged best player gets X, but the backup point guard gets Y?
Now, should there be a way to allow players to profit from their likeness or, say, signing autographs? Sure. I think we could figure out something workable along those lines. But direct payments? It is simply unworkable.
We have allowed a corrupt system to evolve, and why? I say “we” because I am very much an enabler. I added seven more stops to my total this winter and now I am up to 197 venues in which I have seen college basketball. I still love the whole game day/night package. I’d rather not dwell on the sausage factory aspect of how the product came into being. The fact is there is very limited public outrage from anyone, anywhere. However these teams were formed, we get our games in the end.
But what we have is out of whack. I truly believe we need a national summit conference of college administrators, athletic directors, player reps, and even interested politicians to answer the question as to just what is fair and reasonable to expect from our college sports. As I said, no other country does this.
It’s something to think about.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe.