Covering College Basketball in An Age of Scandal

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LUBBOCK, Texas – Greetings from United Supermarkets Arena … because, yes, Texas Tech has a corporate sponsor for its basketball arena. It will be site for arguably the most significant game in school history when the sixth-ranked Red Raiders take on No. 8 Kansas with the Big 12 regular-season title at stake.

According to Vivid Seats, ticket-wise it’s the most expensive home game in Texas Tech program history and one of the top sports tickets of the weekend overall.

ESPN’s College GameDay is on site, enhancing the Big Game feel. It also gives the WorldWide Leader to promote its biggest star. (Trae Young, Trae Young, Trae Young … yes, Trae Young plays HERE!).

Does Your Veteran Scribe paint a cash-centric picture or am I just too cynical? The answer is “yes” to both.

Three decades of covering college basketball and Friday’s news made me wonder why. The ongoing FBI probe had another layer peeled back with details, names, money obtained by Yahoo!Sports. Earlier in the week, a Yahoo story had a quote from a source saying that this scandal is so far-reaching and, well, scandalous that East Tennessee State would be a No. 2 seed when the bracket is revealed in two weeks.

With at least one Top 15 team heavily implicated — Arizona, with head coach Sean Miller alleged to be caught on wiretaps discussing payments for De’Andre Ayton — Yahoo!’s source may not be that far off. 

Hyperbole, no doubt. But the fact that nearly two dozen of the sport’s top programs are apparently implicated in the FBI project provided a sobering prelude to the next-to-last regular-season weekend of this season. I’m fortunate that I will be covering this year’s Final Four in San Antonio – 10 years after covering my last F4 as an official journalist.

The excitement and satisfaction of being there will be similar to the other 24 that I’ve covered. But as the dirt has been unearthed by the feds, it becomes more apparent that the sport has always had a pervasive cheating heart. The NCAA sometimes catches the cheaters but more often than not, it’s catch one, have dozens of others roam free.

Several of my esteemed and more-accomplished colleagues have made it clear that what’s happening now is a tipping point for college basketball. But they’ve written and will continue to write wonderful stories about coaches, players and teams. If the sport changes significantly, is that going to change the stories or the coverage? Doubtful. But there’s so much hand wringing I wonder who has time to tap out stories.

It’s like being an advocate for gun control and wanting to ban assault rifles while freelancing for Guns&Ammo.

Before the ESPN report on Miller, Yahoo! controlled this story thus far and Friday’s story had an agent’s spread sheet from a source which had the dirty details of alleged payments to players for future considerations. Some points to consider.

One, the source of the information fueling Yahoo’s story is either a lawyer for one of the individuals already indicted or is someone with the FBI. If the former, there could be reason to doubt the information. Plus, has the veracity of the spread sheet been fully vetted.

Two, if the FBI is leaking information to the media, then there’s a good chance that its case isn’t strong enough to stand up to a jury trial. Already there’s information that the FBI’s procedures could taint some of the evidence that’s been gathered.

No matter where the trail of the FBI probe leads, this all comes back to two connected issues – money and the NCAA. The NCAA’s arcane and archaic rules – all connected to the sham of amateurism – has created a black market that has been filled by shoe companies, agents trading in pounds of flesh and summer-league coaches, some of whom expect their palms to be greased with dead presidents.

As Rob Dauster, the college basketball writer for NBCSports, Tweeted:

As the NCAA, the conferences and the power schools have cashed their seven and eight figure checks, the players have asked, “What about me?” The suits, especially the commissioners who run big-time college football, cling to the idea of unpaid laborers.

Many of us who have been around football and men’s basketball fully realize it’s a bullspit system. Old white guys make millions while young guys – often persons of color – trade in their bodies’ health and well being for a college scholarship and the ultimate grab at the golden ring of pro sports. The cards are stacked and the powers that be deal from the bottom of the deck.

Anyone who has covered college football is familiar with the Fiesta Frolic. Forty years ago, the Fiesta Bowl was a start-up that grew to become one of the top New Year’s Day bowls, shouldering its way past the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton.

A major reason for the success was executive director John Junker. The Fiesta’s hospitality for the teams and the media was always first class. And to maintain its status with college football’s power brokers, Junker started the Fiesta Frolic, a three-day retreat at the swanky Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa. The guests were coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners. The food was scrumptious, the golf was free and the wives got a three-day vacation at a resort and spa. (When momma’s happy, everybody’s happy.)

Junker’s excesses eventually led to him serving four months for an illegal campaign contribution scheme. A 276-page report into the Fiesta Frolic showed that Junker had spent extravagantly to maintain his influence with college football’s elite.

Those coaches, athletic directors and commissioners? For over 20 years, they were accepting bribes.

No one can claim to be Caesar’s wife. We’re all hypocrites. The percentage varies by person. (Our current POTUS checks in at 99.99999 percent.)

I admit to hypocrisy in several areas. When it comes to writing about college basketball, the percentage it appears the percentage is increasing.