The Real Lesson of the Weekend’s NCAA Scandals Is That College Basketball Coaches Should Be Dumped in the Ocean

Michigan State University basketball head coach Tom Izzo on Feb. 20 in East Lansing, Michigan.
Michigan State University basketball head coach Tom Izzo on Feb. 20 in East Lansing, Michigan. Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Yahoo posted a big story Friday about an ongoing federal investigation into payments made by shoe companies and sports agents to top basketball prospects. The site obtained an expense document from the company run by former NBA agent Andy Miller, which details payments and loans to a number of current NBA players and college stars at several top programs. Yahoo followed up its scoop with another big piece, this one about emails sent within Miller’s agency that documented negotiations with specific coaches. ESPN then dropped a bomb of its own by reporting that federal wiretaps recorded Arizona coach Sean Miller personally arranging a $100,000 payment for a top recruit.

One thing you won’t find in any of these pieces is a clear explanation—or any explanation—of why paying players or “steer[ing] NBA-bound players toward sports agents, financial advisers and apparel companies,” as some coaches charged in the case are alleged to have done in exchange for cash, constitutes a federal crime as opposed to just a violation of NCAA amateurism rules. I finally found such an explanation in a piece by the Louisville Courier-Journal, and it’s thin:

[T]he [federal] complaint says that Adidas executives, unidentified Louisville coaches and other defendants defrauded the University of Louisville by inducing it to provide scholarships to athletes who were ineligible [under NCAA rules] because they or their families had been bribed to go to school there.

The long and short of this Escher-style argument, then, is that the University of Louisville—to name just one program involved—is defrauding itself by spending money to recruit the players who enable it to earn upward of $100 million a year while entertaining its students and fans with winning performances in memorable national championship games. Got it. (I don’t get it.)

As Deadspin points out, it’s insane that federal prosecutors would think any of the behavior documented by Yahoo or ESPN is criminal or even scandalous, especially considering that somewhere between 40 percent and two-thirds of Americans (depending on how you ask the question) believe high-level college athletes should be compensated above and beyond their scholarships. Yahoo’s first piece nonetheless claims to reveal an “underbelly” of “corruption” that “could end up casting a pall over the NCAA tournament” and quotes NCAA president Mark Emmert’s characterization of the agency payments as an “unscrupulous” and “criminal” “affront” to the game of basketball. One of these unscrupulous criminal affronts, to give you a sense of what we’re dealing with, was a dinner that cost $37.35.*

Deadspin’s piece is titled “Who Gives a Shit?” and it’s a fair question. Even fans who don’t support players getting paid under the table should already know those payments take place. But I’d suggest that the Yahoo and ESPN stories actually do have a reason to exist—as inadvertent but convincing cases that nearly every top college basketball coach should be dumped in the ocean.

The first Yahoo story mentions more than 40 different players, who by my count played or play at 35 schools, who may have received money or paid dinners. The second Yahoo story and the ESPN story describe interactions between agents and coaches at those schools and a few others. All three stories largely concern the work of an Andy Miller employee named Christian Dawkins. For context, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 agents who represent current NBA players. When the records of one employee at one agency involve (again by my count) 11 of the teams currently favored to make the Sweet 16, it would require great suspension of disbelief not to conclude that informal player compensation is extremely widespread.

If you had been listening to the leaders and shapers of men whose current and former players are named in the weekend’s stories, though, you would think otherwise! Here’s what selected coaches have said in recent months when asked about the federal investigation, the existence of which became public last September:

• Rick Pitino, who was the coach of Louisville when payments to a top prospect are said to have taken place, indignantly claimed that whoever had made those payments had committed fraud. He had previously said, in an act that retrospectively demonstrated tremendous cojones, that Louisville had gotten “lucky” when the top prospect in question chose to play for the Cardinals. A federal indictment says Pitino was aware that the prospect, who allegedly received $100,000, had been paid.

• “I think we have a small percentage of people that intentionally break rules,” said University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who added that he was “shocked” by the investigation and that programs found to have violated NCAA rules against paying players should be permanently banned from Division I. North Carolina, for years, operated a system of phony classes designed to allow athletes to stay eligible, a transgression for which it was never punished by the NCAA.

• Michigan State’s Tom Izzo admitted he was aware of off-the-books shenanigans taking place—at other schools. “For the most part you have an idea [of which schools pay players],” he said. “You could probably pick and choose the programs, so could I. So you have an idea.” He estimated that about 10 percent of programs are involved in making such payments—payments he worries might not be serving the interests of the individuals receiving them: “If the kid’s getting a benefit, it’s best for him now, but is it best for him in the long run? What are you teaching him? What is he learning?” Yahoo reports that the mother of a current, highly touted Michigan State player received $400 from Dawkins, whose records document negotiations with a Michigan State assistant coach and at least one dinner with Izzo. (Yahoo does not claim that Izzo knew about any specific payment.)

• Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski described college recruiting as “pure … for the most part” and said, “I don’t think this thing about shoe companies giving kids money is rampant.”

• Last September, when an Arizona assistant coach was arrested by federal authorities, Arizona head coach Sean Miller wrote in a statement that he had always, “to the best of [his] ability,” worked to “promote and reinforce a culture of compliance” with NCAA rules that prohibit player compensation. Miller is the coach who, it was revealed Friday, was allegedly caught on a wiretap personally arranging a $100,000 payment to a player. The best of Miller’s ability is apparently not very good, compliancewise.

Top college basketball coaches are often sought after as experts in the field of inspirational leadership; their advice applies, as the saying goes, “both on the court and in life.” These coaches, in my experience, rarely mention that one of their top strategies for the court and/or life is Being Preposterously Full of Bullshit.

This aw-shucks faux ignorance is not just aesthetically annoying. It puts programs that follow the rules—which, their merits aside, everyone claims to agree to—at a competitive disadvantage. More significantly, it deprives players who do follow the NCAA’s rules of compensation of money they deserve and might need urgently. And it prevents even those who are being compensated from participating in enforceable contracts, putting them at risk of being suspended and/or forced into disruptive transfers when they get “caught” “cheating.”

Many college basketball coaches are the highest-paid employees in their states. Izzo and Krzyzewski are more iconic figures than any of their players ever will be, and they have the power to change their sport. Instead, they and other famous coaches seem invested in maintaining the status quo while simultaneously denying that the status quo is the status quo. The first step in figuring out how a system of player compensation could be made fair and widely acceptable to colleges, alumni, and fans would be for big-shot coaches to admit the obvious: that they already operate one.

*Correction, Feb. 26, 2018: This post originally misstated the amount of the dinner in question. (We were off by 20 cents, having stated $37.15.)