Two wise men surely shared sadness from their heavenly headquarters this week. William Friday was 92 when he died in 2012, and Father Theodore Hesburgh was 97 when he died in 2015. These good friends – Friday the 30-year president of what is now the University of North Carolina system and Hesburgh the longtime president of Notre Dame – had chaired the Knight Commission on college athletics for many years. This was one of many noble fights – civil rights, academic freedom, free speech among them – in which they pulled up a steep hill together.
And both saw the alleged scandal that emerged this week from New York coming long ago. Four assistant basketball coaches at major schools, an executive with the adidas apparel company and five others, 10 people in all, were charged by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York with bribery and fraud among other claims. The acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim said, “The picture painted by the charges brought today is not a pretty one. Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs (Auburn, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Southern California) soliciting and accepting cash bribes. Managers and financial advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes. And employees of one of the world’s largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high school recruits.”
Though the University of Louisville was not mentioned by name in the story of payments to a recruit, high-profile coach Rick Pitino and his athletic director were put on leave following the disclosures from New York.
Long ago, Friday warned often that the millions and millions of dollars involved in college sports, from coaches’ seven-figure salaries to side deals with shoe companies to television contracts giving control of schedules to TV networks to the power of big-money boosters who cared little about anything on campus beyond field and court, would come to haunt America’s great universities.
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The ghosts apparently have arrived, at least on some campuses.
Yes, it should be said that all those involved are entitled to defend themselves and are presumed innocent. But the big money in college athletics has long invited problems.
In this investigation – which naturally didn’t come from the NCAA, the weak-willed governing body of college sports – it’s alleged that an adidas executive paid college recruits to sign with “adidas schools,” those with apparel contracts with the company, which also has contracts with coaches, and those recruits also would sign with adidas when they turned professional. Assistant coaches allegedly were good candidates for contacts because they don’t make the seven-figure salaries common to head coaches at major schools, and one is alleged to have accepted thousands of dollars to steer athletes toward certain business managers for their professional careers.
What a sorry state of affairs this is. And while there’s no guarantee even an alleged scandal of this magnitude will make a difference, college presidents have their best opportunity yet to crack down on the wretched excess in college athletics. There are some simple places to start:
First, the National Basketball Association must do away with the rule that requires players entering its draft to be 19 years old. This has given rise to the “one-and-done” phenomenon in colleges, where top prospects enter school when both they and the school’s coaches know they’ll be leaving after one year. This creates a free farm system for the NBA, which is ridiculous. It also forces coaches to accept one-and-done as “the way it is” when they know it should not be.
Second, if universities can’t curb these outside contracts coaches enjoy with apparel companies, they should make all details of the contracts public down to the last dime and collectively set guidelines for the contracts in terms of what a coach’s obligation to a private company is and is not.
Third, academic rigor must be restored for athletes to hold them to exactly the same standards of admission and progression through their academic careers as those of other students. That is first fair to them. These standards appear to have slipped – the academic-athletics issues with fake classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill being a good example.
If other universities aren’t scared to death by this bribery case brought by New York officials, they should be. Not because they assume their own coaches and players are embroiled in some kind of scandal, but because the problems alleged there, the crimes alleged, are a product of the runaway big-money system of college athletics in which most schools participate. Friday and Hesburgh sounded the alarms long, long ago. But not enough people were listening.