The college basketball trial is probably another futile effort to clean up the sport

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz KSN File

The big-time college sports, football and men’s basketball, stepped out of bounds decades ago when cheating, lying and deception became the norm in building winning programs.

The connection between academics and athletics at many of the finest institutions in America is frayed, at best. And in many cases, the connection is long fractured.

College basketball has been on trial this week in a New York federal courtroom with prosecuting attorneys attempting to explain why some college basketball players – two with ties to Kansas – are examples of a broken system.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have been busy pointing out that the fault lies not with their shoe-salesmen clients and the coaches who deal with them, but with the overall system of college basketball. The stakes long ago became too high to expect antiquated rules of amateurism to endure.

KU is paying its coach, Bill Self, millions of dollars a year to win. The Jayhawks are banking on 16,300 showing up to Allen Fieldhouse for every game, as has been the case for years. This string of Big 12 titles, which has been a preposterous 14, doesn’t happen by accident.

And to think it happens completely on the up and up is probably naïve, unfortunately.

I don’t know what comes of the college basketball trial as it winds its way forward. I don’t know if the NCAA will glean that there’s too much finger pointing at Kansas not to conduct its own investigation into the Jayhawks.

But when wiretaps and text messages are used as evidence, it’s difficult to just give it all an “Aw shucks” and wait for the doors to Allen Fieldhouse to open.

Kansas basketball fans must feel worried, at least.

The recruitment of current Jayhawk Silvio De Sousa has been front and center during the trial. So has that of former KU player Billy Preston, who never appeared in a game but nonetheless was heavily, and perhaps illegally, recruited by Kansas.

And a player the Jayhawks eventually lost out on, Zion Williamson, is another player at the center of the trial. Williamson is a freshman at Duke.

These kinds of stories make everyone’s heads hurt. College sports fans, I believe, have forever looked the other way when it comes to recruiting tactics that bend or break the rules. We’ve pretty much decided that the NCAA might represent the ruling class of college sports, but that college sports has outgrown oversight because of its huge-money television deals and coaching contracts.

College sports have been making people rich for a long time, but we draw the line when it comes to sharing some of that wealth with the athletes. It’s absurd, of course. But what are we supposed to do?

Pay the athletes?

Those three words make all the sense in the world. It’s the words that follow them in these conversations – the words that attempt to come up with ways to facilitate those payments – that tie our tongues.

Does anyone seriously believe that people deserve to go to prison over potential payments to college basketball and football recruits?

That is a ludicrous overreaction to these issues. But because we can’t come up with a way to compensate the very athletes who inflate the compensation of coaches and athletic department administrators, this is where we are stuck.

The NCAA, as far as I know, hasn’t turned down one of the fat checks it receives from the NCAA basketball tournament. Why is that tournament so big? Well, one of the reasons, of course, is because of the players.

College athletics are a cynic’s playground. There is an assumption of corruption that is not fair to the programs and coaches who do play by the rules.

But it’s always been so easy to not play by the rules. And the best players and those who represent them aren’t always interested in rules. Their interests are more selfish.

Kansas, meanwhile, is under some pressure. Those on trial have testified that assistant coach Kurtis Townsend and head coach Bill Self were aware of the recruiting misdeeds they have been implicated in. There has been some evidence introduced that supports those claims.

It puts KU in a tough spot. The NCAA could begin its own investigation after the government’s investigation is completed. Kansas could try to get ahead of this and do some self-reporting of possible violations.

Whatever happens, it’s hard to believe the feds’ fist slam is going to be enough to clean up college basketball. It’s also difficult to imagine people going to prison for 20 or 30 years because they’re found guilty of cheating to entice a potential recruit to come to their campus. That kind of punishment doesn’t fit that kind of crime, does it?

There are lots of shady characters involved in the recruitment of college basketball players. That leads to lots of dirty deals.

How do we clean up the sport? By developing a fair and equitable system of compensating the athletes. How do we do that? Um, I’m late for a meeting. Can I get back to you?
 

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