Sneaker Pimps: On The College Basketball Recruiting Scandal

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News of a years-long FBI investigation into a college basketball recruiting scandal involving four assistant coaches begets questions and elicits takes.

The involvement of big-name programs — perennial contenders Arizona and Louisville, a preseason Top 10 team in USC and a member of the SEC in Auburn — eyebrows raise. Two of the programs involved, Auburn and Louisville, have head coaches in Rick Pitino and Bruce Pearl embroiled in very recent recruiting controversy.

Arizona’s Book Richardson has been lauded as one of the nation’s top recruiters — and the Wildcats tip the upcoming season with a Top 3 recruiting class headlining for a team likely to top a variety of polls. USC’s Tony Bland was a fast-rising assistant, someone I personally thought could return as head coach at San Diego State.

The names involved are indeed significant.

Now, add the letters F-B-I to the conversation, consider the assistants involved were arrested, and factor in a statement that defines the investigation as entering “the dark underbelly” of college basketball recruiting, and the picture painted is particularly murky.

As far as being destructive to the game? Barring further and more unsettling developments, the suggestion is laughable. College basketball’s endured the game-fixing scandal at Boston College in 1978-’79, an incident referenced in GoodFellas because of its real-life connection to Henry Hill’s crew; that same ’78-’79 season is fondly remembered for launching college basketball’s profile nationally with the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson national championship game.

In 1991, UNLV — a program that dominated the college basketball landscape at the time and that played in one of the most celebrated Final Four games ever — was at the center of a scandal involving a shady figure nicknamed Richie “The Fixer.”

College football’s endured worse much more recently, between Jerry Sandusky and Baylor. That is a dark underbelly, yet the sport remains popular and neither program was hit with an NCAA death penalty.

So, no: Tuesday’s recruiting scandal revelation isn’t an atomic bomb that will level the sport.

If it does fundamentally alter the complexion of college basketball, it will be for the positive. Maybe — just maybe — this is the pivotal moment that leads to players receiving a larger share of the take.

Virtually all recruiting scandal invites the usual pearl-clutching about the overstated, if not mythical sanctity of college athletics.

I love college football and basketball, but I harbor no delusions about certain realities. Both generate billions of dollars, none of which the players — those whose actions attract the audiences that make the money — get to see in any tangible manner.

The trade-offs are a college education, the quality of which isn’t guaranteed as the ongoing controversy at defending national champion North Carolina illuminates; and gear. That gear comes from the shoe companies that write massive checks to universities, exchanging their products for the built-in marketing and guaranteed consumer base.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen generated some offseason buzz that quickly dissipated in the spring of 2016, as often happens in this era of 24/7 news and echo-chamber aggregation. His criticism of “non-profits” like UCLA athletics signing $280 million deals with Under Armour implicitly adds context to this latest college basketball recruiting scandal.

The worst-kept secret in college hoops has long been the influence of shoe companies. Nike and Adidas have been jockeying for position with elite high school prospects for decades, hosting summer camps for blue-chip recruits, sponsoring AAU teams and tournaments.

For shoe companies, investment in young basketball players is an investment in the business. Better players going to their sponsored schools improves the quality of those programs, expanding demand for the companies’ product. Then, in the case of the top fraction-of-a-percent of those youth and high school players, brand loyalty established in their teens can persuade endorsement opportunities for those rare few who make it to the pros.

Never has the role of shoe companies been so publicly nefarious as an Adidas exec’s alleged involvement in the FBI investigation, but apparel providers have long played a part in the structure of the sport. These are publicly traded companies — just this month, Adidas was celebrating its stock climbing on news it surpassed Jordan Brand in sales — investing billions into athletes who are not receiving paychecks.