Injustice, exploitation and greed all pervasive in college basketball
America at Large: Taking advantage of young players is at the very heart of the college game
Wendell Carter Jnr of the Duke Blue Devils. His mother is named in a federal case because she received a free meal worth $106.36 from an agent who was interested in her son. Photograph: Getty Image
In a couple of weeks America will get into its annual tizzy about March Madness. College basketball will dominate water-cooler conversations, and billions of dollars will be gambled on the knock-out tournament that is the hectic culmination of every season.
Television networks garner huge ratings, coaches on the sidelines pocket seven-figure salaries, and the likes of Adidas and Nike see their shoes getting great exposure on the feet of gifted young men who are not earning a red cent for their vital contribution to this extravaganza.
This year’s edition may be slightly less giddy than usual because Yahoo! Sports have just published a raft of documents from an FBI investigation into endemic corruption on campuses. The revelations were detailed and damning, yet hardly surprising.
Here is a game whose entire foundation has been built upon the most egregious lie that the players are student-athletes, somehow juggling the pressures of academia with shooting hoops in sold-out stadia on national television several times per week.
At lower levels this may still be the case, but for those teams contending for the national title each year the reality is very different.
More than 20 of the nation’s best-known basketball schools (a popular term that indicates the significance of sport over study at these institutions) and dozens of top prospects have been implicated by the FBI.
There is evidence of teenage boys and their families getting bribed to sign for one college over another, with one case involving a future star named Deandre Ayton being offered $100,000 to throw his lot in with the Arizona Wildcats.
While these kind of inducements contravene the NCAA’s (National Collegiate Athletic Association) strict rules about amateurism, the real crime has long been that the game is rigged so that everybody involved makes serious bucks except the kids.
From the moment he evinces any prepubescent promise, a young American basketballer will be shepherded onto AAU travel teams and instantly into a world where adults coin a tidy living from their talents.
Adidas, Nike and the rest fund many of these all-star outfits, blinding impressionable kids with free sneakers because they are banking on a few of them making it big one day.
Instantly, the boys are on the radar of college coaches, many of whom are commercially affiliated with the shoe companies, part of a lucrative pipeline running through the sport, ensuring everybody gets paid, except the children, many of whom come from poverty and ghettoes.
Arguably as exploitative an environment as exists in all of sport, America has tolerated it for decades because the NCAA perpetuates an elaborate fraud that the kids cannot earn any money because to remain eligible for the college game they must be “true” amateurs.
Instead, every “student-athlete” receives a scholarship entitling them to four years of education. Which would be fine too except in most of the serious basketball schools, players spend one semester taking joke-shop courses to maintain the pretence of academic interest long enough so they can play in March Madness.
While just over 1 per cent of college players will eventually make it to the NBA, plenty will depart the education system with basic literacy problems having made their universities millions of dollars in revenue.
That some of these guys may have received under the table payments from avaricious agents is much less of a scandal than the very structure of the sport itself. While many speculate the FBI’s wire-tapping resources might be better deployed elsewhere just now, there’s also genuine hope this investigation will finally expose the injustice and hypocrisy at the heart of the college game.
For example, coach Mike Krzyzewski earns a salary of $7.2 million at Duke University (plus millions more from a Nike contract) yet the mother of Wendell Carter Jnr, one of his current stars, is named in the federal case because she received a free meal worth $106.36 from an agent who was interested in her son. The type of financial anomaly that showcases everything bad about the NCAA’s tiresome and increasingly fake Corinthian values.
“The NCAA is one of the worst organisations – maybe the worst organisation – in sports,” said Stan Van Gundy, coach of the Detroit Pistons in the NBA. “They certainly don’t care about the athletes. They’re going to act now like they’re just appalled by all these things going on in college basketball? Please. It’s ridiculous.”
Van Gundy is among those pointing out part of the problem is a ludicrous rule that prevents talented high school graduates from entering the NBA draft until they are one year removed from classes.
Black and poor
Deprived of that opportunity, most are forced into the rancid college system where they have to pretend to be students while enduring unnecessary financial hardship. That a lot of the kids put in this situation are black and poor also makes the whole issue racially-charged.
Perhaps nothing sums up how dreadful college basketball has become more than the fact it has turned arch bloviator LaVar Ball into a voice of reason. With one son playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, and two more plying their trade in Europe until they become eligible for the NBA, Ball is mooting a new Junior Basketball League.
The idea is a competition where the best teens could earn up to $10,000 per month while showcasing their skills for professional scouts. Even if his personal involvement in the plan will trouble many, offering any alternative to the NCAA would represent progress.