Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Money Madness

Cash is king in college basketball

By Randy Horick

MARCH 13, 2000:  If John McCain ever tires of tilting against the corrupting influence of money in politics, boy, have we got a new windmill for him. I say we vote him president of the NCAA and let him have a few cracks at cleaning up college basketball.

Of course, McCain might have to turn down the job, if only to prove to his nattering critics that the North Vietnamese had not rendered him dog-slobbering insane. On the other hand, if taking on the hoary, whory mossbacks of the Washington cashocracy hasn't fazed him, he might be the only guy valorous or foolhardy enough to attempt to pasteurize men's college hoops.

Even amid the March-long celebration of the game, it's becoming difficult to temporarily ignore a festering, unpleasant reality: Money has broken big-time college basketball, perhaps beyond our ability to repair it.

At the higher levels of the sport, just as in our politics and elections, the warping influence of money is pervasive. It has created within the game a vast, interlocking economy that breeds both an addictive dependency and a powerful temptation to do wrong.

Money's effects are perhaps most evident in the mind-numbingly lucrative TV revenues that flow to conferences. On-the-court success translates into more TV appearances, which increase a basketball program's exposure and facilitate more on-the-court successes, which lead to even more revenues, which equip some schools to tender million-dollar contracts to coaches. Which, naturally, makes it mighty tempting for ambitious coaches to do whatever is necessary to field the kind of players who can produce wins, revenues, fat contracts, and springboards for even porkier deals at bigger schools.

The competition for the players whose talents generate the money upon which the whole system depends is fierce, and it extends both above and below the ranks of college coaches. Even before they reach high school, the most promising young players are taken under the wings of AAU coaches--some of whom attempt to parlay those players into college coaching jobs of their own.

During high school, top prospects may find themselves befriended by street touts--some of whom may be informally employed by top college programs--who seek to steer athletes toward a particular school. In the summers, coaches flock to ogle players at elite, invitation-only camps.

(Work the system just right, as Florida's Billy Donovan did, and you can even manage to cozy up to blue-chip prospects on a European basketball tour.)

At the other end of the rainbow, exiting collegiate stars must negotiate a gauntlet of agents--all of whom covet their signatures, some of whom violate NCAA rules by proffering a foretaste of the NBA high life.

As in politics, "soft" money is everywhere. Division I coaches pocket it from school-sanctioned summer clinics and contracts with shoe manufacturers. Schools pocket it not just from hard ticket sales but from TV and from sponsors whose logos are ubiquitous in campus arenas, and from NCAA-approved sales of replica jerseys displaying the numbers of star players.

Everybody gets a turn at the cash teat except the athletes.

Theoretically, that should be fine, since, in return for their services, the players receive a chance for a college education and, if they're good enough, at an eventual pro career.

In reality, it's not fine. In order for the lords of big-time basketball to maintain the fiction that they're part of the field of amateur athletics and not in the entertainment business, the players must make their way through a treacherous minefield of rules, red tape, and often ridiculous requirements. In a real sense, the athletes are surrounded by the money their talents helped generate; yet if they benefit materially from it, even by a nickel, even in perfect innocence, they're dead.

I'm not talking about recruits who visit schools with palms extended or the coaches with slush funds--the scofflaws whom the rules are intended to nab. Time and again, however, applying the letter of these rules violates their very spirit. In their well-intentioned zeal to preserve the sport's integrity, the pharisees of the NCAA--whose enforcement efforts are no more effective than the Border Patrol--strain at gnats and swallow whole camels.

Allow a friend to buy you a hamburger, and you could land your team in deep NCAA doodoo. Give a recruit a ride, as one coach did, instead of making him find his own way home during a snowstorm, and your school will end up on probation.

Or consider the case of Michigan's Jamal Crawford, who was suspended by the governing body of college athletics for actions that occurred before he even became a collegian.

After witnessing the drive-by murder of his best friend in South Central L.A., Crawford moved to Seattle to live with his mother. In hopes of assuring that her son would never have to return to his old deathtrap neighborhood, his mother appealed to a wealthy telecommunications executive she had met.

The executive, Barry Henthorn, provided Crawford with clothes, meals, transportation, tutorial help, and spending money--all the while thinking he had done a good deed. Not so, declared the NCAA, who ruled that Crawford could no longer be considered an amateur unless he scraped up $11,000 to donate to charity.

You might also have read of the plight of Erick Barkley, St. John's outstanding sophomore point guard. His offense (also pre-college) was to receive tuition assistance from a church in New York City so he could attend a prep school in Maine.

Stickier still is the case of Chris Porter, who could have been among the first 10 players chosen in last year's NBA draft but chose instead to return to Auburn for his senior season. Last month--with draft day, pay day, and graduation day all soon to arrive--Porter accepted a $2,500 advance from an agent's representative so he could help his mother avoid eviction from her home. Auburn, which anticipated draconian punishment from the legalistic NCAA, suspended its star and is appealing (probably in vain) for mercy.

The original spirit of amateur competition in basketball survives at the small-college level. It endures, more or less, at the many big-time programs where things are run honestly and players graduate.

Except for the name on the paycheck, however, the line between collegiate amateur and NBA professional is becoming increasingly blurred. In a telling move, the NCAA itself is considering a new regulation that would permit players to return to college to use any remaining eligibility if their NBA careers don't pan out.

Upon further reflection, even the steely McCain would probably be reduced to hair-pulling hysteria by the prospect of reforming this mess.

The best fixes might be to pursue either one of two extreme courses. The NCAA could eliminate athletic scholarships, as the Ivy League schools do. Or it could admit what everyone already knows and allow member schools to enroll any players it wants, pay them whatever it wants and get on with bidness. (Sooner or later, some school will sue to do just that, and win.)

Meanwhile, some players--who, as usual, are way ahead of the bureaucrats--are finding their own solution. It was articulated best by NBA rookie Lamar Odom, who was shunted by coaches to three different high schools; then spent one season at Rhode Island, where his coach, Jim Harrick, used the player's talent to land a better job in Georgia; then ran afoul of the NCAA's labyrinthine rules by discussing his pro prospects with an agent.

Forget this whole sorry college mess, Odom recently advised other talented young players. Just turn pro.

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