Quick: Name me ten current college-basketball coaches. It’s easy, right? The names roll off the tongue as quickly as the names of the schools themselves do. Coach K. Jim Boeheim. John Calipari. Roy Williams. Tom Izzo. These (all white) men are the totems of their sport, the superstars, the immortals.
Okay, now try naming me ten current college-basketball players. Heck: Try five.
All right, let’s go the other way: Name me ten current NBA players. This is the easiest of all, no? It’s easier to name ten NBA players than ten U.S. senators. (And a lot more pleasant too.) Now, name me ten current NBA coaches. Heck, again: Try five.
This disparity, that professional and collegiate sports have total opposite concentrations of power, is based in the same foundational principle as everything else in this country is: Money. Steve Kerr has won three championships as head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, but he only made $5 million in salary last year; this would make him the eighth-highest paid player on his own team. Meanwhile, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made $8.89 million last year. His players … well, you know how much Duke pays them. All the power and equity is in the players in the NBA, and the coaches in college. Guess which is more fun to watch.
It is thus very much a College Basketball Thing that the biggest scandal to hit the sport in a decade involves … giving money to players. Sometime this week, a jury in the high-profile but still oddly muted federal fraud case involving two Adidas executives and a sports agent will give out a verdict, and there will be headlines about What It Means to the Sport, as well as the high-profile coaches (including Kansas’s Bill Self, as well as Coach K himself) who had had their names dragged into the case’s increasing wake. But the strangest thing about the case is that the accused felons feel like the only honest men involved … even if they’re guilty. Heck, especially if they’re guilty. College basketball is so upside-down that trying to help a kid out will get you thrown in jail.
Let’s get some background about the case, or, more so, the circumstances that led to the trial. Basically, shoe and apparel companies (in this case Adidas, but also Nike and Under Armour) have huge, multimillion-dollar deals with every major university’s athletic department. This goes far beyond just providing equipment, like it did back in Dean Smith’s days. Under Armour will be giving UCLA $12.76 million a year through 2032; Texas and Michigan get nearly $10 million a year from Nike through 2031. This makes certain schools, essentially, property of the company; Duke is a “Nike school,” Kansas is an “Adidas school,” Notre Dame is an “Under Armour school,” and so on. The shoe and apparel companies eventually realized that in addition to “sponsoring” the schools, there was benefit in making long-term bets on the players themselves. Schools are not allowed to pay players, and (theoretically, anyway) face an NCAA punishment if they do so, but what does Adidas care about the NCAA? These companies realized that giving a small amount of money to a college player or his family — many of whom are in desperate need of financial assistance — had long-term benefit: Give a 17-year-old kid some walking-around money now, and it might pay off big time if he hits the NBA and is looking to sign a big deal with your company. These two separate strategies, inevitably, intertwined, and thus the companies started giving money to players with the expectations that they would sign with one of their schools. The colleges, and the assistant coaches, are essentially middle managers: Getting players to suit up for their teams is, essentially, their vig. It is worth noting that this has been widely understood to be the modus operandi in college basketball for about a decade now, and while no one was out in the open about it, if you didn’t know it was happening, you were willfully blind and/or ignorant.
Turns out: The government sees it as illegal. But it’s sort of fascinating the sort of bank shot that brought them to that point. The crime, as they see it, is not against the player, or the government, or even their companies: It’s against the schools they’re out essentially recruiting for. Prosecutors argued that the Adidas executives conspired to break NCAA rules and then to hide the payments from universities (though not always coaches themselves). Thus — and this is where it gets weird — they, in the words of a smart Sports Illustrated write-up of the case, “defrauded the schools of athletic scholarships they awarded under false pretenses and denied their ability to make informed decisions regarding their assets.” So basically: Their victims are the schools getting the money and the players.
In the context of the twisted logic of college athletics, this actually makes sense. But only in that context. College athletics is a massive business, one that brought in more than $1 billion in revenue to the NCAA last year and is estimated to earn nearly $10 billion for the schools themselves. But, of course, the athletes don’t receive any of this other than a scholarship, which is great but not particularly close to evening the scales. This leads to the massive power disparity between players and coaches mentioned above, but it can have more practical effects than just that. I remember being at the 2014 Final Four, when, at Jerry Jones’s diamond-encrusted billion-dollar palace in Texas, I saw Connecticut MVP Shabazz Napier on the massive scoreboard, a day after he gave an interview saying that some nights he went hungry because he simply could not afford food. Meanwhile his coach received millions of dollars from Nike so his unpaid players could run around promoting its logo.
In this world, what the shoe and apparel companies were doing was less “fraud” than “actually paying the people making them money.” They were trying to find some justice in a fundamentally unjust system … while of course trying to get some money themselves along the way. This is what is so strange about the government hitting this particular case so hard. On one hand, it’s bizarre that they’re so shocked to find gambling in this establishment. But more to the point: Of all the problems in college athletics, this is what they decided most needed reform? Paying players may violate the NCAA rules, but there isn’t a law against some 21-year-old making money to play basketball.
In the wake of the trial and the high-profile busts that led to it in the first place, a certain sort of college-basketball coach and fan has tried to argue that this trial will somehow “clean up” the sport. Here in Athens, Georgia, where I live, former Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox said, when indictments were handed down, that he welcomed it, that coaching should only be for people who “do this job in an honorable way.” But Fox drew a $1.7 million salary from Georgia as well as a deal with Nike itself, which paid Fox an undisclosed amount, in which he was “obligated to make up to three appearances a year on behalf of Nike up to 24 hours in duration,” and that Georgia “should be available to take part in Nike-sponsored tournaments once every three years.” It is difficult not to look at that and think that Fox thinks the “honorable way” is to make sure that no Nike money goes to the players because he’d like it all himself. It is worth noting that Fox has since been fired by Georgia and replaced by Tom Crean. Between the salary Georgia owes Fox and will be paying Crean, the university will be spending $5.35 million on basketball coaches during the 2018–19 season. But money that goes to the players is bad.
It’s hard, then, to look at this trial and see it as ridding college sports of any sort of corruption: Corruption is baked into the business model itself. And this is a tough fact to reconcile, I’ll confess. I am a season-ticket holder to Georgia men’s and women’s basketball here in Athens. I haven’t missed a men’s basketball game of my beloved alma mater Illinois Fighting Illini in about 20 years. The first four days of the NCAA Tournament are my four favorite days in sports. I love this game. But today, more and more players are making the perfectly rational decision to play overseas for a small pittance rather than attend college for the one-year minimum required by the NBA (and the one-and-done rule may be gone eventually anyway) or to just skip entirely and train for the NBA Draft, leaving the game populated by only players good enough for college but not nearly talented enough to play on the highest level. So college basketball has to ask itself: What even is this sport now?