Four years ago, I was doing an article on a Halloween party. (Yes, those are the kinds of duties freelance writers often find themselves involved in.)
But this particular party was in the Cherokee Triangle home of the University of Louisville president, James Ramsey. I guess it was an annual ritual, and the president’s wife told me it was her favorite holiday of the year.
So where were we in the fall of 2013? Rick Pitino’s Louisville basketball team was the reigning national champion. And Charlie Strong’s football team was undefeated, ranked seventh or eighth in the country depending on the polls.
Tom Jurich seemed just about the most successful athletic director in the country. And the school president and some of his cronies, gathered for the party, were swinging a pretty big mallet.
Self-congratulations and testosterone flowed with the Halloween punch. And that punch couldn’t have tasted any sweeter to Ramsey and his crowd. It was a gorgeous autumn evening in one of the show neighborhood’s biggest show houses, on Longest Avenue, and the future for all concerned seemed unlimited.
Wow! There’s karma around every corner. Every one of those gentlemen was going to fall very, very far in the next few years, including the president.
I can’t tell you I know all the details of Ramsey’s fall from grace, but money was certainly involved, Money always is. When I heard, at about that same time, that Louisville had the biggest, most profitable sports budget in the nation, how could that not have turned heads? And this was even before the Cardinals joined the ACC.
Tell me it’s near the top for a comparable-sized urban school, or a school in a conference (the Big East, at the time) that didn’t even sponsor football, and I’d be impressed. But tops in the country? That has to make you wonder.
What doesn’t make you wonder, anymore, is the amount of dough involved in maintaining a successful sports program. And that starts, always, with the athletes. So some money has to be spent somewhere to attract the athletes that will keep a school team competitive.
Where’s it coming from? And who’s it going to? We’ve always preferred to turn our heads and honor the great old amateur tradition of the NCAA. (By the way, neither of those A’s stands for “amateur.”)
Student-athletes? Sure they are. Everything on the up-and-up? Sure it is.
And when it isn’t, and some school is punished for coloring outside the lines, we congratulate the NCAA for uncovering the violation and taking action. Okay, back to the games.
This, of course, is a whole new set of issues. We’ve had alumni and boosters, we’ve had coaches and assistant coaches and entire athletic departments, coaxing recruits and their families with gifts. Altering test scores so a kid can qualify to enroll. Playing footsie with the faculty, so failing scores or non-attendance get swept under the rug.
It makes the entire idea of the student-athlete more than farcical. Most athletes haven’t been going off to college for their educations in a very long time. Of course, some take it all very seriously, attend class, get grades, love the entire experience. But it’s probably a small minority.
And, when you think about, the amount of time an athlete is required to devote to sports – playing, practicing, traveling, working out – it almost automatically eliminates the likelihood he can devote what’s necessary to the classroom.
Sure, the NCAA aggressively monitors it all. Monitors the dates on which athletes can start playing, when they can put on a uniform, how long the practices can be, whom they can accept a sandwich from. Sure, the NCAA is a marvel of oversight. Kind of like a substitute teacher. The NCAA has still yet to determine what to do about North Carolina taking exams on behalf of its athletes.
But this is a different issue. A brand new one. It’s not boosters and alumni, nor dirty coaches, it’s the shoe companies. And it’s not the NCAA slowly trying to get its head out of the mud, it’s the FBI. The G-Men!
This is not violation of amateur athletic rules. This is crime.
I read, in all this, someone tweeting that John Calipari must feel like the guy going 100 miles per hour, seeing a cop’s flashing lights in the rear view mirror and then the cop passing him and stopping another car.
I don’t know to what extent Cal is involved in things like this. It’s hard to imagine that, if it is so widespread, the best college basketball recruiter in the country is entirely uninvolved. I’m guessing the investigation will become pretty far-reaching. Other shoes will fall. (That’s a pun that has been used over and over in the last few days.)
So why not Cal? Or K? Or Bill Self? Or Roy Williams (who has his own problems – or should have).
I honestly hope not, in pretty much all those cases. And not just because I like to think Kentucky’s above it all, and that we won’t have to dismiss a coach whom we love, like Louisville did.
But if the very gold standards of college basketball programs get tarnished by this, what’s left of college basketball? You can fire Cal, K, Self, Roy, Sean Miller, Steve Alford, and put these bluest-of-blue-blood programs on probation, or the death penalty, or however far you can go.
You can also probably find even deeper incriminations, until maybe only Gonzaga is found to be clean. And maybe not even Gonzaga.
You can absolutely wipe the slate clean. But then what do you have? What’s left?
In 1951, City College of New York won both the NCAA and NIT titles, at a time when the NIT was as big as – even bigger than – the NCAAs. The following year, nearly the entire team was implicated in a point-shaving scandal. City College never had much of a basketball program after that.
Now multiply that by several hundred.
There have been other moments in the last 70 years when scandal seemed to wreck college ball. But they mostly were the result of gamblers and mobsters, which is after all criminal activity. This time, it was not Salvatore Sollazzo or Jack Molinas, this was not Sam Gilbert or Ed Martin, this was not Clem Haskins or Larry Brown or Eddie Sutton.
It was Nike and Adidas. Big-corporate America. I suppose someone – the NCAA, the individual schools, the law – can somehow snap the connection between sports equipment and AAU youth basketball and college basketball and the huge monetary rewards for putting a successful basketball team on the court.
But you can’t make the players play without shoes.
And pretty soon, you won’t be able to make the players go to college.