The mad­ness goes way be­yond March

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Un­til two weeks ago, it seemed that the Di­vi­sion I col­lege bas­ket­ball in­dus­try could pro­duce noth­ing more ris­i­ble than its pieties about cher­ish­ing the am­a­teurism of the “stu­dent-ath­letes” who gen­er­ate, but get mere crumbs of, the in­dus­try’s bil­lions. In Oc­to­ber, how­ever, a New York jury, which per­haps had a sense of hu­mor, em­braced this novel ar­gu­ment by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment: Bas­ket­ball fac­to­ries such as Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina State are ac­tu­ally vic­tims of the op­er­a­tives — rep­re­sen­ta­tives of shoe com­pa­nies, and ac­tual or as­pir­ing agents — who use un­sa­vory meth­ods to di­rect “blue chip” re­cruits to the schools’ lu­cra­tive bas­ket­ball pro­grams.

The three men con­victed of fraud and con­spir­acy in the first of at least three sim­i­lar tri­als face im­pris­on­ment be­cause of this sup­posed crime: The three schools men­tioned above gave ath­letic schol­ar­ships to five elite re­cruits whose fam­i­lies had re­ceived — pre­sum­ably, but per­haps not re­ally, un­be­knownst to the schools — through the three men (one of them a former consultant for the Adi­das shoe com­pany) pay­ments, one of $90,000, to pur­chase their help in di­rect­ing their sons to those schools, which re­ceive much larger pay­ments to ad­ver­tise, by wear­ing, Adi­das gear. (Nike and Un­der Ar­mour also com­pete in the auc­tion for schools’ al­le­giances.)

Might the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s fi­nite law en­force­ment re­sources serve more de­serv­ing vic­tims? And why is it a fed­eral crime to evade the NCAA’s lack­adaisi­cal en­force­ment of its non­sen­si­cal rules by pay­ing fam­i­lies? About schools main­tain­ing (to bor­row a phrase from pol­i­tics) “plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity” of the meat mar­ket in tall teenagers, Post columnist Sally Jenk­ins notes: “De­fense at­tor­neys pre­sented text mes­sages be­tween [former Adi­das consultant T.J.] Gass­nola and Kansas Coach Bill Self that showed the coach was well aware of Adi­das’s ef­forts to steer re­cruits to him, if not the method. Gass­nola as­sured Self that Adi­das was ‘here to help’ in get­ting play­ers for the school, which was fi­nal­iz­ing a 12-year, $191 mil­lion spon­sor­ship deal with the sneaker com­pany.” Not bad com­pen­sa­tion for Kansas-the-vic­tim.

A Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion pro­gram an­nounced last month might some­what di­min­ish col­lege bas­ket­ball’s stench, which the NBA made worse with its 2005 rule that teams could not sign play­ers younger than 19. This cre­ated the “one and done” cha­rade of play­ers sort of at­tend­ing, say, the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky for one sea­son, then turn­ing pro. Elite 18-yearolds will now be able to re­ceive $125,000 for a sea­son in the NBA’s de­vel­op­men­tal G League, drain­ing some tal­ent from the pipeline sus­tain­ing the car­tel of col­lege bas­ket­ball pow­er­houses.

Per­haps schools should give can­dor a try, pay­ing their bas­ket­ball and foot­ball play­ers as value-adding em­ploy­ees who cre­ate al­most all of the $8 bil­lion that col­lege sports gen­er­ate. Un­der­grad­u­ate mu­sic ma­jors are not for­bid­den to earn money with their tal­ents while in school. Ken­tucky coach John Cali­pari’s salary is $8 mil­lion, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski’s is $9 mil­lion, and 44 other head coaches earn more than $2 mil­lion, so per­haps

some­thing could trickle down to the “stu­dent-ath­letes” who now re­ceive only tu­ition, room, board and small cost-of-liv­ing stipends. Tay­lor Branch, writ­ing in the At­lantic in 2011, noted that the NCAA minted the phrase “stu­dent-ath­lete” to de­flect the threat of in­jured ath­letes mak­ing work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion claims.

In a Cal­i­for­nia trial (a rul­ing is pend­ing), some former ath­letes chal­lenged the NCAA’s strict price con­trols on la­bor as an­titrust vi­o­la­tions that pre­vent com­pet­i­tive bid­ding. Amaz­ingly, the NCAA man­ages to say with a straight face: “Main­tain­ing am­a­teurism is cru­cial to pre­serv­ing an aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment in which ac­quir­ing a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion is the first pri­or­ity.” To which jour­nal­ist Pa­trick Hruby, writ­ing in The Post, re­sponds: “A 2015 sur­vey found that ath­letes in the Pac-12 Con­fer­ence spent an av­er­age of 50 hours per week on their sports and were of­ten ‘too ex­hausted to study ef­fec­tively.’ ” And: “A Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia as­sis­tant men’s bas­ket­ball coach taught a course, mostly for his play­ers, with a fi­nal exam that be­gan by ask­ing: ‘How many goals are there on a bas­ket­ball court?’ ”

The les­son of this tawdry story is that if you graft a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try on to aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, the dis­cor­dance will leave the lat­ter soiled and the former in­dulging in shady prac­tices serv­ing the pre­tense that the in­dus­try is some­how some­thing other than it is. The sen­tenc­ing of the three men con­victed in Oc­to­ber is set for March 5, two weeks be­fore the 2019 NCAA men’s bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment, which CBS and Warn­erMe­dia pay nearly $1 bil­lion a year to tele­vise. It is called March Mad­ness. Ac­tu­ally, the mad­ness is a 12-months-a-year, ev­ery-year busi­ness.

Per­haps schools should try pay­ing their bas­ket­ball and foot­ball play­ers as value-adding em­ploy­ees.

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