Don't blame coaches, agents or players—blame the NCAA
Let me be the first to say that I'm thrilled that the FBI is using its vast federal resources to investigate college basketball. I can't imagine a better use of that organization's time, money, and manpower. In fact, I hope they put everything else on hold until we can get to the bottom of this, and if that means joining forces with the CIA, the ATF, the NSA, and perhaps a group of elite shock troops from the Department of Agriculture, I say "go for it!"
OK. Deep breaths. Turning the sarcasm faucet off for a moment, you likely know the story by now: A bunch of big-time college hoops programs seem to have worked with an agent to provide money, entertainment, lodging, and other benefits for recruits. The case involves wiretaps, financial records, emails, and various other records, and has already implicated Arizona coach Sean Miller, who discussed a $100,000 payment to a recruit with a runner who worked for the sports agent Andy Miller. Apparently, he's not alone—the list of schools that may face sanctions is insane, and includes almost every giant in the sport: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, etc. etc.
The richest part of this story, though, comes from Mark Emmert, the kingpin at the top of the NCAA crime family. Here's what he had to say in a statement on Friday:
"These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports. They are an affront to all those who play by the rules."
Those words, to me, represent that absolute pinnacle of audacity and hypocrisy. The NCAA is running a highly profitable business enterprise that is based on free labor. While it may be hyperbole to call it "slavery," it's quite accurate to say that the organization's money-making athletes (the ones playing for free in revenue sports) are stuck in a cycle of indentured servitude. They earn a "free" education, yes, but the players that are good enough to make teams competitive, draw profits, and line the pockets of coaches and administrators are often pursuing careers in the professional ranks, and many don't bother finishing their degree. And the price of that education is far, far less than they're worth to those schools. It's a scam, it's anti-labor, and it's depriving workforce-eligible human beings of their proper compensation.
There's only one conclusion that makes sense to me in this specific situation, and it involves looking at the NCAA from that wide-angle perspective. What they're doing to their players is ahistorical, and it ought to be illegal. Just because it's allowed on paper doesn't mean it's right—by any moral code worth its salt, this is a criminal organization. It follows that any coach or agent who gets money for these players is not really in the wrong—they're taking corrupt action, sure, but it's within a corrupt system. The greater crime, by far, belongs to the institution of the NCAA writ large.
Now, believe me, I'm not saying these coaches or agents have noble intentions. They want to win, they want to make money, and they're not saintly Robin Hoods robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But I can't get fired up about some poor kid doing all he can to extract money from a stingy system that is all too willing to use his body to profit themselves. They deserve it, and if a coach or agent facilitates that process, they're not doing anything wrong on an ethical front. To get angry at people who defy the NCAA is to demonize the individual over the oppressive system, and to rage against what is essentially a victimless crime.
In essence, I'm arguing for context. You can't reasonably get upset at the machinations of coaches like Miller and excuse the broader iniquities of a system that encourages exactly this kind of graft. I'm a Duke fan (I know, I know, shut up), and if it comes out that Coach K has been paying players left and right, or "violating" some other NCAA statute, it won't change my opinion of him even one degree.
I once saw The Wire creator David Simon speak in Chapel Hill, NC, and I've never forgotten one specific part of his speech. When talking about the drug trade in America, the economy that essentially forces poor people into it, and the punitive drug laws that contribute to our absurd levels of incarceration, he made a fascinating statement. If he were ever placed on a jury for a drug crime that had no associated violence, he told the audience, he would vote to acquit—regardless of the criminal's legal guilt or innocence. To him, the drug dealers were victims too, and the true villains in the story are the punishing realities of American life that drive them to that life. The same logic can be applied to the NCAA, and if we spend our time raging at the little people who thumb their noses at the overlord, we are punching downward.
There's a very real crime here, but it wasn't perpetrated by Sean Miller, or Coach K, or some agent who got a few kids paid. The crime is the NCAA itself. It would be wonderful if the FBI would stop wasting its time on small fish and go after the killer whale.
Interlude: Geno Smith, the Earth is Not Flat
It's starting to become insane how many athletes get roped into this idiotic conspiracy. Look at this exchange:
Is there anything more infuriating than a dumb argument defended by someone going, "Hey, I'm just asking questions here! Why do you hate questions?" Come on Gene—don't be this guy.
Dumbest, Most Infuriating Olympic Event of the Millennium: Snowboard Parallel Giant Slalom
Last week, I sang the praises of Ester Ledecka, the Czech snowboarder who stunned the world by winning a gold medal in alpine skiing on borrowed skis. Her "real" event, snowboard parallel giant slalom, was still to come, and the prospect of her winning gold in two different disciplines at the same Olympics was unprecedented in the modern era. That event happened late Friday night, Ledecka won, and I don't mean to demean her incredible achievement, which was both well deserved and friggin' spectacular. But...
Laurent Salino/Agence Zoom
My God, the event was dumb. The way snowboard parallel giant slalom works is that two competitors race each other at the same time. There's a qualifying run, but after that it's all head-to-head, single elimination, from 16 down to one. There are two courses side by side, a blue course and a red course, and in past Olympics, they would race twice—once on each track—to account for any advantages to be had one side or the other. They dispensed with that precaution this year for some reason, and you'll never guess what happened...
Almost everyone who raced on the red course won. There were 34 total elimination races in the men's and women's events after the qualifying rounds, and of those 34, 29 were won by snowboarders on the red course. Most of them were total blowouts, and of the five races won by blue course racers, three of them came by virtue of the red course snowboarder wiping out. (A fourth blue win looked dubious at the photo finish.) Here's the crazier thing: The snowboarder with the best time got to pick the course he or she wanted, and every single one of them picked the red course. Ester Ledecka had the best time in trials, and so she picked the red course in each round, and so she won gold.
Watching it all play out was both comic and enraging—the "faster" snowboarder from the qualifiers got to pick the course, yes, but this is a famously nip-and-tuck event, and that doesn't begin to explain the insane winning disparity. Watching hopes and dreams get crushed at the sport's most public event, all because of a coin flip, was an almost anxious experience, and that's from my couch. I can't imagine how the racers themselves felt. Even more remarkable? NBC didn't mention it once, and although there were thousands of people on Twitter complaining about the red course's advantage, it's hard to find even a single article about it.
(Worth noting again: Ledecka also had the fastest qualifying run, and was a worthy gold medal winner despite the flaws in event design.)
I don't really know why I'm writing this—I watch snowboarding exactly once every four years—but dammit, it was WRONG, and I want justice! If we take the integrity out of the Olympics, what remains? The answer is nothing. Now pardon me while I read a story about a Russian ice dancer who got caught drinking a gallon of liquid steroids in the locker room.