Newsletter 80: Justifying the Love of College Basketball

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from November 2017, about the moral quandary of college basketball. This was originally supposed to be a Sports On Earth column, but they forgot to post it until it was too late and I just made it a newsletter instead. That doesn’t happen very often, but hey, sometimes, it’s just free stuff.

Last night, I went to my first college basketball game of the year, watching the Georgia Bulldogs, beat the Bryant Bulldogs 79–54. This is the fifth season I’ve had season tickets for the Dawgs, and I will hang onto them until I die. I got home just in time to watch my even more beloved Illinois Fighting Illini beat the Southern Jaguars 102–54. I deeply love college basketball. I know it’s not better than the NBA. I know the main reason I love it so much is that I grew up with it. I still love it.

I haven’t written much about the FBI investigation that has roiled college basketball over the last month and a half. So let’s go ahead and do so now.

There is nothing quite like the FBI taking an interest in your sport to clarify your view of the world. Ever since College Basketball Planet was rocked by the arrests of several assistant coaches for their dealings with shoe companies in late September — with the promise of more reckonings to come; there were just indictments Tuesday — there have been two primary reactions within the sport.

1. “Holy crap, this is going to hit me or my favorite program next.”
2. “This is the burn-it-all down moment this sport has needed for years. There is corruption within the sport. This is the opportunity for that corruption to be purged.”

I might humbly submit that both these reactions are wrong.

It is important to remember what this scandal is about. Essentially, shoe companies, who have hundreds of millions of dollars potentially to be made off young basketball players, have funneled cash through college basketball assistant coaches to give to those teenage players and their families, with the expectation that those players will both attend a particular school and eventually, if their talents end up meriting it, sign with that particular shoe company. It’s basic venture capital speculation: Shoe companies give a little bit of money to a lot of players, hoping that one or two of them end up becoming superstars. The colleges, and the assistant coaches, are essentially middle managers: Getting players to suit up for their teams is, essentially, their vig.

If you have a pie-in-the-sky, This Is Supposed To Be About Student Athletes view of the world, you might find this an outrage. College basketball isn’t for passing money from shoe companies to teenagers; it’s about educating young men. It’s about tradition, and competitive, and education. If you believe that’s what college basketball is about — not what it’s supposed to be about, but what it is about — then yes, this must seem like a rot at the core of the sport that must be excised.

But this is quite the delusional moral high horse to climb up on. I always remember being at the 2014 Final Four at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas, where there were diamond-encrusted stripper poles in the upper deck and the NCAA logo fighting for space with the logos of their “Corporate Champion” sponsors on every visible space, watching Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier, who had just helped his team win a national championship, take the mic and appear on AT&T Stadium’s massive overhead scoreboard. Napier, who had just made so much money for his coach and his school and the NCAA and CBS and Coca-Cola and Infiniti and every other Corporate Champion, called his team “hungry,” a knowing callback to his comments two days earlier, about how difficult it is as a “student-athlete” with no direct income.

We as student-athletes get utilized for what we do so well, and we’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food … It may not have your last name on it, but when you see your jersey getting sold … you feel like you want something in return.”

The guy was the MVP of the national championship game, in Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar palace, and he didn’t have enough money to get food. And he was the MVP of the game!

This is a sport — a sport I passionately love — that makes literally billions of dollars (the contract with CBS signed two years ago is worth more than a billion dollars a year) and doesn’t give any of it to the people who actually play the game. Forget how you feel about that as a fan, or an alum. Think about how it must feel as a player, and a family member of a player. There is this much money swirling around college sports, and you don’t get any of it? None of it? What? If you are a player, or a family member of a player, how in the world is that supposed to make any sense? Thus, you do what any reasonable person would do: You try to get some money out of a system that is explicitly, foundationally rigged against you.

You claim that a shoe company giving money to a player is against the rules. But what kind of rules are those? There is so much money in college basketball. At least shoe companies are giving some of it to players. They’re doing it out of self-interest, of course, but whatever: You take your victories where you can get them. That there are so many millions in college basketball but none of that money is allowed to be given to players … that’s the scandal here. A strong argument could be made that the shoe companies’ scheme was the only moral thing about college basketball.

Mark Fox, head coach of my season-ticket Georgia Bulldogs, has made several comments about how he welcomes the FBI investigation, how he believes it will be cleansing for the game, how “we’re going to do this job in an honorable way.” Mark Fox is an honorable guy, a decent guy, a better basketball coach than most people appreciate and absolutely the type of fellow I’d want coaching either of my sons if they ever play basketball at a high level. I cheer my head off for that team every game they play.

But honestly: Give me a freaking break. Mark Fox makes $1.7 million a year from the University of Georgia. Nike gives the University of Georgia $4.1 million a year. As part of that contract, Fox is “obligated to make up to three appearances a year on behalf of Nike up to 24 hours in duration,” and Georgia “should be available to take part in Nike-sponsored tournaments once every three years.” The problem, from Fox’s view, is not that shoe companies are involved in college basketball; he clearly is OK with that. The problem is that they’re giving money to the players and their families rather than coaches. That’s the rot he’s trying to get rid of.

Until college sports start paying their players, until they start making it so the national championship game MVP isn’t going hungry in the days before a game, until people start being honest about what this game actually is, someone — shoe companies, rich alumni boosters, “rogue” assistant coaches — is going to find a way to give these teenagers and their family some sort of off-book benefit. For all the talk about scandal, and rot, and “cheating,” that strikes me as the most fundamentally moral and humane thing about college basketball. The FBI is trying to fix a problem that’s actually the only makeshift solution this sport has. This isn’t about fixing college basketball. It’s about pretending everything is fine, that if you get rid of the “bad guys,” everything about college basketball will be what it’s supposed to be. But everything is absolutely not fine. College basketball thinks it’s in the midst of a scandal now. But the scandal is ongoing. The scandal is the sport.

Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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