WASHINGTON — Although it is plausible to suspect this, it is not true that the Credit Mobilier scandal of the late 1860 to 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 I 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 two odiferous 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, for its well-compensated self and its members, 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 I assistant basketball coaches (from Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Southern California), and an executive of Adidas, one of the shoe and apparel companies that spend princely sums to have their merchandise worn by college teams. (Under Armour pays UCLA $18.7 million per year.) One assistant coach is charged with accepting bribes to connect an amateur "blue chip" recruit — presumptively NBA material — with a financial adviser.
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. (Karl Marx had a piece of a point: Exploitation is depriving workers of the value created by their labor.) Coaches could share their share of the wealth: Kansas' Bill Self's total pay is $4,932,626, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski $5,550,475, Kentucky's John Calipari $7,435,376. 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 the 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.
The Wall Street Journal's delightfully acerbic Jason Gay notes that the NBA (an $8 billion business) could afford to have academies where athletic prodigies could hone their skills agreeably free from the higher-education pretense. The NBA's developmental G League already is, for 18-year-olds, an alternative to college.
The NBA's minimum age of 19 has produced the "one-and-done" travesty of "blue chippers" playing one season as cheap rentals (the price of athletic scholarships) at universities, then skedaddling to greener pastures. An NBA rule forbidding teams to sign a college player until three years after he matriculates would lessen universities' importance as incubators of NBA talent.
However, 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."