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Guest Editorial: The corruption at the heart of March Madness

GARY VARVEL / Indianapolis Star

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This editorial is from the New York Times:

College basketball has long made much of its money by sleazy recruitment and exploitation of teenage stars. With a series of federal bribery and fraud charges announced last week, prosecutors are now treating these shady dealings as what they are: corruption, not a rules violation.

Coaches, the very people whom prized young athletes should be able to trust, were found to be profiting from them and helping others — agents, financial advisers, the Adidas shoe company — profit, too.

“For these men, bribing coaches was a business investment,” declared Joon Kim, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in disclosing a continuing investigation into academia and sports entertainment. The criminal complaints were rare in an area too often relegated to self-policing by universities and the NCAA — the watchdog of college sports and the umbrella organization that runs the popular, immensely profitable basketball championship tournament dubbed March Madness, where college stars compete before some of them go on to professional careers as millionaires.

At one college, an Adidas representative promised a player’s family $100,000 for committing to a school and an endorsement, the charges said. At another, an associate head coach allegedly took nearly $100,000 to steer players to financial advisers eager to invest and share in their future salaries. At a third, a coaching assistant is said to have sought bribes from people seeking access to his players.

The dimension of the scandal was clear when the University of Louisville ousted its coach, Rick Pitino, on Wednesday. One complaint, while not actually naming Louisville or Pitino, implied that someone in the basketball program directed money from Adidas to two high school prospects. The university signed a 10-year, $160 million contract this summer with Adidas for the men’s basketball program.

Pitino, who was not charged, warned in 2014 about shoe companies’ power as brokers between coaches and stars. “I think we need to get the shoe companies out of the lives of young athletes,” he said. But the coach, the nation’s highest paid, at $7.7 million a year, has a reputation for cutting ethical corners. He was suspended and his program was put on NCAA probation in June after investigators found prostitutes were provided for players and teenage recruits.

Pitino is a master of the “one-and-done” phenomenon, in which high school stars play at universities for just a year before moving on to professional careers. This situation arose after the NBA and its players’ union agreed to bar players before they have turned 19 or until a year after high school graduation.

Previously, high school players could sign on and earn full professional salaries — safe from the no-income college rules and fictions that invite the sort of abuses laid bare in the complaints. This is just one area demanding reform.

College basketball programs unscrupulously compete for top players to earn more from the immense pot of profit from television. The complaints cast a spotlight on that greed and hypocrisy, which is infesting what is supposed to be, but hasn’t been for some time, an innocent and amateur sport.