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George Will

George F. Will: College basketball season begins under clouds

| Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, 4:51 p.m.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
AP Photo | Timothy D. Easley
Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

WASHINGTON

Although it is plausible to suspect this, it is not true that the Credit Mobilier scandal of the late 1860s-early 1870s (financial shenanigans by politicians and others surrounding construction of the Union Pacific Railroad) and the 1920s Teapot Dome scandal (shady dealings by politicians and others concerning government oil leases) were entangled with Division One college basketball programs. Back then, there were no such programs. About the 1970s Watergate scandal, however, suspicions remain.

The college basketball season has begun under odoriferous clouds, making it reasonable to wonder why this athletic appendage of higher education seems so susceptible to smarminess. Here is a hint: This season will culminate in the March Madness tournament, for which the National Collegiate Athletic Association reaps more than $700 million annually from various television entities, whose coverage of the student-athletes (the NCAA's cherished locution) will be interspersed with commercials for beer and pickup trucks.

In September, an ongoing FBI investigation produced 10 indictments, including those of four Division One assistant basketball coaches and an executive of Adidas.

Seventeen days after these indictments, the NCAA's anemia was displayed when it said it could do nothing seriously punitive after its seven-year investigation of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, last season's NCAA basketball champion. UNC administered, for almost two decades, a “shadow curriculum” of 188 fake classes in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies Department. Taken disproportionately (about half) but not exclusively by athletes, the classes required no attendance and only a minor paper. The NCAA — what is its purpose? — concluded that this was beyond its purview: The fraud was academic, not athletic, because some non-athletes also took the courses.

Of the many proposals for fixing, or at least perfuming, the current system, the most common is to pay the players. This might serve equity. Louisville's Rick Pitino made $7,769,200 until he was fired in October. He professed ignorance of goings on upstairs in the bordello: Pitino had been surprised to learn about the prostitutes-for-prospects dimension of Louisville's recruiting. Then he was surprised to land a prized recruit whose family allegedly received $100,000 plus monthly payments from Adidas.

But paying players sums commensurate with the value that their talents create would mean a few staggeringly large “student-athlete” salaries, and comparative pittances for the rest. It also probably would make the players qualify as university employees — hello, workers' compensation, unionization and other intricacies — and still would leave so much money sloshing through the system that there would be ample incentives to cut corners for competitive advantages.

No matter how many ameliorative measures are adopted, this truth will remain: There is no way gracefully — without unseemly accommodations — to graft onto universities an enormously lucrative entertainment industry. We have been warned (by the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott): “To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.” But to be fair to basketball, the other high-revenue college sport has its difficulties. Twenty-four years ago, The New York Times noted: “At the University of Washington, Don James resigned as head (football) coach after failing to notice that his quarterback owned three cars.”

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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