It’s Way Cheaper to Pay Athletes Than to Bribe Coaches

Photo: Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The dirty not-so-secret of most pay-for-play “scandals” in college athletics is that the crimes are usually more honorable than the law itself. While college sports are a multibillion-dollar business that expands exponentially every year — remember that when the brackets are announced Sunday, brought to you by the NCAA’s “corporate champions” at Chevrolet and Dr. Pepper — players themselves remain unpaid: The Final Four MVP a few years ago spent the week before the game complaining that he literally didn’t have enough food to eat. When any money is funneled to players, whether it’s through fan boosters, agents, or shoe companies, it’s technically against the rules; the irony is that this black market remains infinitely more just than the official rules in place. Put another way: The shoe companies are going to give somebody their money. Does it make more sense for that money to go to the young black players who actually wear them … or to old white coaches?

But there is inherent inequality even in that fairer black market, and that became even more apparent in the wake of the still-gross and still-hilarious Varsity Blues college admissions scandal that has riveted the nation this week. All those college sports scandals wags have been wringing our hands about for years? Turns out they were for chump change.

The most staggering thing about the Varsity Blues scandal is the raw amount of cash exchanged merely for getting a kid into school — $200,000 for getting into USC through the crew team; $50,000 to take a test; $1.2 million for the Yale soccer team. These are life-changing amounts of money, handed over for something as trivial as an exam, or a Photoshopped athletic picture. But for the gatekeepers — the school administrators, the coaches, the test proxies — those amounts were the cost of entry. It required that much just to get your foot in the door. The reason for this is that, well, all of the people involved were already well-off. The Yale soccer coach, the Stanford sailing coach, the private equity chair, none of them were ever poor in the first place, which meant you weren’t just paying for whatever services were being provided: You were paying for the assumption of risk. To get wealthy, high-status people to take on the risk of exposure and get in the game, you had to pay exorbitant amounts. They had the privilege to charge high prices.

But many “revenue sport” college athletes and their families have no such privilege. Their cost to entry is decidedly lower. In the massive wiretap scandal that hit college basketball last year (and whose ramifications are still being felt; LSU coach Will Wade was just outed as paying a shoe company for a player and has been suspended as a result), the money exchanging hands seems downright piddly in comparison. The most notorious transaction involved Louisville basketball coaches giving the father of prized recruit Bruce Bowen II $100,000 over four installments for a player to come to their school. Does that seem like a lot? Well, that is essentially $25,000 a year to play big-time college basketball for one of the most prominent schools in the sport on its grandest stage. Does $25,000 a year strike you as a life-changing amount of money? Only in the context of college sports would $25,000 a year seem like a radically over-the-top exchange. Bowen didn’t even end up getting that or a college education, as it turned out. He left Louisville after the scandal hit, never even got to be chosen in the NBA Draft, and now plays for the Sydney Kings in the Australian National Basketball League. (The players make $700 a week there. ) All that for an amount of money that is, when you consider the hours the average college basketball player puts in, less than the minimum wage.

And that was the largest amount of money! That’s about as scandalous a cash outlet as college sports get. Thursday, Georgia Tech and its men’s basketball coach, Josh Pastner, received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, which almost always ends up being a death knell for the coach, about two Level I violations involving the program. What’s the scandal? A Georgia Tech assistant coach took a basketball recruit to a strip club and gave him … $300. Three-hundred dollars! You’ve got the Full House mom dishing out a cool half-million to get her YouTube kid on the crew team at USC — USC! — and the assistant coach at Georgia Tech, a school that brought in $88.3 million in revenues last year, is handing a kid 300 bucks in a back alley like it’s the most nefarious (yet generous!) thing a person could do.

The difference is not in the wealth of the person giving out the money: Georgia Tech and Louisville have a lot more financial wherewithal than Lori Loughlin. The difference is in the wealth of the person receiving it. Even college sports’ more-virtuous black market is exploitative. Put another way: Big-time college sports, a billion-dollar business that pretends it’s about amateurism, even cheats cheaply.

It’s Way Cheaper to Pay Athletes Than to Bribe Coaches