Criminal Charges Against College Basketball Coaches: Are Major Changes Ahead for College Sports?

With Jay Rossello.

On September 26th, federal officials announced criminal charges against ten individuals, including four college-basketball coaches.  The charges included bribery, corruption, and fraud.  To some, the charges are a black eye on college basketball, but not an indicator of systemic problems with the NCAA.  For others, the charges are an example of the graft and exploitation endemic to college sports and an opportunity to enact the major changes that they think college sports desperately need.

While the specific allegations against each defendant differ, a distinct pattern does emerge in the indictments.  Businessmen, primarily talent managers and financial advisors hoping to profit off of promising young basketball talents, used assistant coaches to guarantee that the players would be steered toward their business services.  For the indicted coaches, they are accused of accepting bribes for steering, and in one case lying to, players and their families, urging them to sign with agents and financial advisors, without disclosing their own financial relationship to them.   For one businessman, an employee of Adidas, federal prosecutors allege that he made secret payment to guarantee that a high school prospect chose to play at an Adidas-branded university, saying it was good for “potential business.”  That same employee allegedly helped arrange a $100,000 payment to the family of a heavily recruited high school player.

Even though not expressly named in the indictments, Rick Pitino, the famous, and notorious, coach of the University of Louisville men’s basketball team, was placed on “unpaid administrative leave” with the college announcing that his employment would be “reviewed at a later date.”  The move came one day after two unidentified UL coaches were accused of funneling money provided by Adidas to high school prospects.  In June, Pitino’s program was sanctioned by the NCAA for providing prostitutes to players and recruits.

The reaction to the news of the indictments has been one of shock, but not total surprise.  While many suggest that the college basketball world is filled with dark corners of under-the-table payouts and backroom deals, up until now, criminal charges have been rare.  More often, after bombshell reporting, usually by whistleblowers or unhappy agents, the NCAA has stepped in and punished programs, forcing them to forfeit wins, Final Four or Bowl Game appearances, scholarships, or, in extreme cases, suffer the dreaded, death penalty, which bans a school from competing in a sport for at least one year.  This news feels different, however, including one national newspaper that forecasts more coaches possibly facing criminal charges in the future.

Dave Ridpath, president of the Drake Group, which seeks to “defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports,” referred to the indictments as a wake-up call, adding “I think this truly shows [the] real inability of the NCAA to police college athletics.  I think most everyone knew this was going on.”  Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who favors paying college athletes, stated that while the indictments might increase the momentum for changes to the NCAA, the association has survived worse.

NCAA President Mark Emmert called the charges “deeply disturbing” and announced that the NCAA has “no tolerance whatsoever for this alleged behavior.”  Emmert remarked on the “breach of trust” inherent in the charges, calling it “extraordinary and despicable.”

When considering the allegations—and the last few years of alleged wrongdoing across college sports—it is hard not to see the root causes of the biggest problems in college sports at work in the allegations.  The commercialization of the college athletics enterprise, which drives institutions’ pursuit of the best athletes and most talented, and expensive, coaches, will always pose incentives for unscrupulous individuals to profit off the system and provide opportunities for individuals within it to succumb to temptation.

On the other hand, these realities do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that many, like Prof. Zimbalist, make: e.g., that college athletes should be paid.  To do so, would undermine the amateur foundation of the unique college athletics system in this country, likely threaten college sports’ appeal, and otherwise introduce a whole different set of issues (e.g. Title IX), with competing incentives and unscrupulous individuals still to be grappled with.  The cure-all argument—pay the players—of injecting even more money into college athletics could lead to outcomes worse than are present now.  The fact is that, under the current system, student-athletes come to college to both play a sport and pursue academic studies.  The rules of amateur sports govern that effort.

In addition, it is especially hard for a group of a couple of dozen enforcement investigators at the NCAA headquarters to effectively police twelve-hundred or so member institutions, along with their respective staffs, coaches, and student-athletes.  This effort is made even more difficult because the investigators lack subpoena power.  Whether this scandal, or the next one, marks the beginning of the end for the NCAA is hard to predict, but it is unlikely.  The NCAA’s infrastructure is very well-entrenched and there is no viable alternative available to take its place as a college sports’ governing body.

Ultimately, the overarching lesson in this latest scandal is one for college and university presidents, boards, and administrators to heed very closely.  It is doubtful that most big name, high-powered coaches are interested in academic and institutional integrity the way that their academic and compliance counterparts are.  Therefore, it is up to university leaders to choose whether to forego big time athletic administrators and coaches, even legendary ones, who may not have a full commitment to, or interest in, such fundamental aspects of the institutional enterprise.  In the end, the short-term gains fueled by basketball championships or bowl game successes, are bound to be overshadowed by potential sanctions, legal and courts costs, adverse public relations, and an overall tarnished brand that will weigh heavily on institutions for many years after the scandal.