The morning of Tuesday, September 26th will likely be remembered as the beginning of the end of college basketball as we know it. While most programs and fans were gearing up for Midnight Madness and the return of hype on the hardwood, the FBI announced that it had made four arrests of NCAA Men’s Basketball coaches from Oklahoma State, Auburn, Arizona, and Southern California on federal corruption charges. The FBI report, the culmination of a three-year investigation including undercover agents, alleges the existence of a scheme that involved payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to assistant coaches in exchange for steering athletes to specific apparel companies, agents, and financial advisers. In addition, the FBI announced the arrest of the director of global sports marketing for Adidas, as well as a cadre of individuals in related industries.
The real bombshell in the report, however, concerns the downtrodden University of Louisville men’s basketball program, which is referred to as “University-6” in the dossier. The report alleges that an unnamed Louisville coach requested a payment of $100,000 from Adidas to “Player 10” back in June, in order to have the player sign and commit to Louisville. “Player 10” has been widely reported to be Brian Bowen, a prized five-star recruit who signed with the Cardinals on June 5th and was suspended from basketball-related activities shortly after the publishing of the findings. The identity of the unnamed Louisville basketball coach remains unknown, yet the report’s transcripts detail that “no one swings a bigger d*** than [the Louisville coach]at [Adidas],” which indicates Hall-of-Famer Rick Pitino may have been directly involved in the scheme. Already recovering from an embarrassing prostitution scandal that resulted in a self-imposed postseason ban, vacated victories, and probation, the embattled program placed Pitino along with Athletic Director Tom Jurich on administrative leave. All reports point to Pitino being all but done at Louisville, as the University announced the hiring of interim coach James Padgett to replace the two-time national champion.
What are the report’s implications for college basketball? Fully unpacking the fallout from Prosecutor Joon Kim’s findings is impossible at the moment, as more prominent names and schools are likely to be implicated as witnesses flip and more information surfaces. Furthermore, Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League has been served with a subpoena, so it does not appear that the investigation will be limited to schools with Adidas contracts.
In the short term, the 2017-18 college basketball season is thrown into uncertainty. Louisville, which was expected to contend for a National Title, will have to deal without its legendary head coach and a five-star recruit, as well as a potential postseason ban. Arizona, widely picked as the preseason No.1 team, may face similar scrutiny from the NCAA. Southern California, touting their deepest roster in years, is in uncharted territory as well. Auburn, perhaps as a preemptive measure, has already offered full refunds to any season ticket-holders. Multiple recruits for the class of 2018 have decommitted from the Louisville and some of the other programs named in the report.
Taking the longview, college basketball’s prospects become even murkier. The current debate over amateurism has reached a boiling point in recent years following the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into academic irregularities at the University of North Carolina, attempts by NCAA athletes to unionize, and Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA. The fundamental underpinnings of the NCAA’s ideal of a student-athlete have been under fire, while rumors of pay-for-play have echoed throughout the chambers of college basketball.
On a more personal level, the recent investigation has left me even more conflicted about my appetite for college sports. I cannot resist the fanfare and school spirit on display during March Madness, and when my team wins, there is no greater feeling than seeing the kids you’ve watched grow up right before your eyes celebrate bringing a ‘ship back home. And if I am being honest, I am still going to keep up with every Big Monday on ESPN, every wacky Saturday afternoon with upsets galore, and every Top-25 ranking that comes out. But I can’t help but admit that the recent investigation has dampened the excitement I normally feel right before the season tips off. Yahoo’s Pete Thamel dubbed Tuesday “The Day College Basketball Lost its Virginity,” and fans across the country, myself included, are feeling a similar sense of demythologization with the binding thread that is college basketball.
Perhaps it is for the best. Maybe we will look back on September 26th not as American Pie (The Day College Basketball Died) but as the beginning of a pragmatic approach to discussing the elephant in the room: the facade of amateurism at big-time college athletic programs. I am hopeful that this exposé of the dark underbelly of college basketball will lead to an honest conversation about not only the corruption that exists among shoe companies, AAU coaches, and athletic programs, but will also more generally bring out some clarity about whether institutions of higher learning should be the epicenter of a billion-dollar industry. Until that day comes, however, I will be soaking in the glory of every rivalry game, buzzer-beater, and Cinderella story that occupies the sports world from November to April, albeit with tempered euphoria.
Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP