By Dan Bernstein
It all seemed so dramatic, the Justice Department’s unveiling of indictments in a sweeping and ongoing investigation into a massive fraud and bribery scheme involving major college basketball recruiting. Big schools, big names and even suits at Adidas said to be on tape arranging payments to high schoolers and kickbacks to venal money managers, like some kind of primetime TV drama that even had the prosecutor warning others, “We have your playbook.”
Intense stuff, except for anybody who has been anywhere near this industry, ever.
Being at all aghast at such allegations means not having paid attention to the multibillion-dollar cartel that is the NCAA, an organization built on free labor, massive television deals and the popularity of sports gambling. They have exalted the lie of the “student-athlete” for decades, all while putting on the occasional show of punishing rule-breakers to keep up the appearance of propriety.
Only the dumbest or most naive observer wasn’t aware of the shadow economy thrumming within revenue-generating college sports, as loaded boosters funded an arms race over sports facilities, publicly traded corporations slapped their names on arenas and shoe companies developed talent-delivery systems from city streets to the NBA, that used such deep-pocketed colleges as just a one year-stop for their money trains.
Dr. David Ridpath is a Sports Administration professor at Ohio University and a nationally recognized expert on the NCAA and intercollegiate sports matters. On 670 The Score in Chicago Tuesday, he outlined what the federal indictments may mean for the governing body.
“In many ways I feel like they didn’t want to know,” he said. “I think this has been an open secret in college basketball, and it’s been the seamy underside for many, many years. It’s just been a matter of actually proving it, and the NCAA’s enforcement and infractions process is pretty weak in that area.”
What Ridpath is describing reminds us of the scene in The Untouchables when grizzled veteran cop Jimmy Malone looks at his wide-eyed idealist new boss and explains, condescendingly, “Mr. Ness, everybody knows where the booze is. The problem isn’t finding it — it’s who wants to cross Capone.”
Just as they had walked right across the street from the police station to find the illicit activity, so have the feds thrown open for the NCAA all they need to ferret out wrongdoing per their bylaws. If — as Ridpath notes — they want to now, or truly ever did.
And now the stakes are higher, especially for head coaches, even if they have since moved on to other schools. In October of 2013, the NCAA announced changes to its enforcement policies that made head coaches accountable for the actions of their assistants, essentially stripping them of the “I had no idea” defense, or other common efforts to create phony layers of plausible deniability. As reported at the time by Sports Business Journal, “Simply stated, head coaches are on notice. No longer will claiming lack of knowledge prevent individual sanctions. The model is not new. It exists in the employment context. Head coaches, the time has come to start thinking like an employer.”
This was the college sports equivalent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals that codified individual responsibilities of corporate executives and directors for a company’s wrongdoing. And along with ending the ridiculous “rogue assistant” excuse, it ended the unfairness of punishing a university after the offending coach had skipped town or jumped to a greener pasture, tying the infraction to the head coach at his current school.
It’s why there is panic across college basketball right now, made all the more acute if and when the NCAA cares to act.