Is college basketball kids ‘being pimped around,’ ‘amazing life lessons’ — or both?

College athletics:

A) “is about winning and money. That’s what drives all these unethical decisions.”

B) “teaches so many amazing life lessons. So there’s no better laboratory for these young people to learn lifetime skills and lessons.”

C) Both of the above?

Ohio University professor David Ridpath, who heads The Drake Group, said college athletics is about winning and money. To make this point, he cited several recent examples of abuses going unaddressed in order to protect an athletics brand from embarrassment: Dr. Larry Nasser at Michigan State, Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.

“We have put winning and revenue generation ahead of everything, even (ahead of) protecting kids,” Ridpath said in a recent interview.

Then there’s Mark Whitworth, who was announced last week as Asbury University’s new Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics (read: athletics director). He said that college athletics teaches “amazing life lessons” that can inspire young people to excel throughout life.

“We want them to think about academic excellence and spiritual vitality …,” Whitworth said of his hope for Asbury athletes. “It’s a matter of stewardship. Maximize the gifts that you’ve been blessed with.”

The ongoing FBI investigation of college basketball corruption revealed what Ridpath has called a “black market” in recruiting. “Essentially, these kids were being pimped around to benefit the adults,” he said.

This was widely accepted as business as usual.

“The one thing I learned in college athletics when I worked in the business was I was protecting the brand at all costs,” said Ridpath, who formerly worked in rules compliance. The typical job description in athletics included “whatever you could do to prevent negative visibility,” he said.

Meanwhile, Whitworth, an Asbury graduate and former Southeastern Conference Associate Commissioner, wants Asbury teams to win. After all, competition demands a winner and a loser. But, he said, the games can enable athletes to better compete in business or other professions after college.

“I do think probably some people do athletics better than others,” Whitworth said. “And what I mean by that is the win-at-all-costs mentality is not productive. …

“This idea of protecting the brand at all costs, that’s not a healthy approach. … I hope and pray we never enter into that realm.”

As a Christian-based NAIA school, Asbury promotes a “Biblical worldview” that Whitworth said has never been more relevant.

“We see a culture getting more and more complicated, and issues becoming more and more divisive,” he said. “Our hope is that we will equip young people to have that servant’s heart.”

Ridpath applauds Asbury’s mission. He only wants big-time college athletics to acknowledge it has a less noble objective.

“We’re looking at it more as an elite development entertainment vehicle, which is not inherently wrong,” Ridpath said. “But let’s be honest about it. Let’s not try to be something we’re not.”

Mixed review

The Drake Group promotes reform in college athletics. Its president, David Ridpath, gave NCAA president Mark Emmert’s comments on Thursday about upcoming change in college basketball a mixed review.

When news broke last fall of a FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, Emmert spoke of bold and sweeping change. That wasn’t what Ridpath heard on Thursday.

Ridpath saw “a little bit of a positive” in Emmert’s call for the NBA enhancing the G League as an option for players not interested in college.

“Kids should have choices,” Ridpath said. “The NCAA in the past would kind of push aside discussion of the one-and-done, (saying) ‘that’s not our rule’ knowing they were benefiting immensely from it.”

But Ridpath also wants schools to pay players, and the NCAA to allow players to profit by endorsing products and charging for an autograph. Ultimately, the courts or Congress will force such change, he said.

Meanwhile, Emmert did not endorse the idea of paying players.

“I think they’re still dusting around the edges,” Ridpath said, “because they’re trying to preserve a model that doesn’t work.”

‘Fandom is crazy’

A year ago last Monday, Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the South Region finals in Memphis. Some UK fans vented their anger by threatening the life of referee John Higgins or trying to hurt him financially by posting fictitious reviews on his roofing business’s website.

Last week Sports Illustrated used this infamy as the foundation for a story about how trolls use the anonymity of the internet to abuse sports figures.

During SEC Media Day last October, several league coaches talked about how fans treated Higgins.

“I know how big the game of college basketball is,” Florida Coach Mike White said. “No one appreciates that more than us coaches. But at the end of the day, it’s a game.”

Said then-Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy: “I think fandom is crazy. … People can go about every aspect of their life thinking logically. When it comes to sports, they think illogically.”

Then-Georgia Coach Mark Fox said he gained perspective by serving on the rules committee. He asked for fans to have empathy.

“It’s a hard job,” he said of officiating. “It’s almost an impossible job. Is it a block? Is it a charge? Was he moving? Was he still legal? Was the foot on the ground? There are so many intricate details that have to be measured at such a high speed of the game. And players are more physical. It’s a hard game to officiate.”

Added Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy: “It’s unfortunate. That’s the passion Kentucky fans have for basketball. It’s a double-edged sword. That just happened to be the wrong edge of the sword.”

Rating the refs

As if his coefficients, logarithms and number crunching weren’t exhausting enough, human slide rule Ken Pomeroy also rates referees. That raises a question: how exactly do you rate a referee?

“Obviously, I can’t rate them on performance,” he said. “No officiating stats are out there. I rate them on quality of their assignments.”

The better the games a referee works, the higher he rates. For example, calling a conference tournament championship game would move a referee up in the standings.

“So I think there’s some merit to it,” Pomeroy said. “But, obviously, it’s a little bit of guesswork.”

Pomeroy ranked John Higgins as the seventh-best referee in the nation this season. “I have a higher opinion of him than Kentucky fans do,” Pomeroy said. “But I watch him. I think he does a pretty good job.”

Higgins ranked No. 4 in the 2016-17 season. He had worked in five straight Final Fours, and seven of the last eight, before not getting the assignment this year.

Pomeroy ranked Doug Sirmons at No. 3 this season, up from No. 12 last year. Sirmons ejected UK Coach John Calipari before the first television timeout at South Carolina two years ago. Sirmons is working his fifth Final Four in the last six years.

“I’m usually more lenient on officials than most people,” Pomeroy said. “It’s a really tough gig.”

NCAA numbers

As a 5-seed, Kentucky would have bucked a strong trend by winning the South Region. Since 1985, when the tournament field expanded to 64 teams, the 5-seeds have a record of 8-38 in Sweet 16 games.

If you go back to 1979 when seeding began, 5-seeds have a record of 9-46 in Sweet 16 games.

Interestingly, of the nine 5-seeds that won Sweet 16 games, seven won again and advanced to the Final Four.

Perspective

The day after his team won the West Region, Michigan Coach John Beilein became a grandfather for the fourth time. His daughter, Seana, was already the mother of three children.

His son, Patrick, became a father for the first time last Sunday with the birth of Thomas Patrick.

This prompted a question about which was better: becoming a grandfather again or advancing to the Final Four? Not even close.

“We didn’t even know they’d gone to the hospital yet, and all of a sudden the picture of Thomas Patrick was on the phone,” Beilein said. “That brought tears to our eyes. Getting to the Final Four did not bring tears to my eyes. That did.”

Equal time

With the NCAA scheduling a Friday news conference for Sister Jean, sportswriter Mike Lopresti of NCAA.com adopted his own equal time provision. He contacted Father Ben Hawley, the priest at St. Mary on the Michigan campus.

Among Father Ben’s parishioners is Michigan Coach John Beilein.

Father Ben had a confession of his own to make about whether he’s a basketball fan. “To tell the truth, no, not particularly,” he told Lopresti. “But the head coach is in my parish. So, yes, I love basketball. And more to the point, I love Michigan.”

Father Ben attended Loyola, where he received a Master’s degree in social philosophy.

Did Father Ben plan to watch the game?

“Is the Pope Catholic?” he told Lopresti.

Happy birthday

To Sean Woods. He turned 48 on Thursday. … To former UK assistant coach Ralph Willard. He turned 72 on Thursday. … To former UK football coach Hal Mumme. He turned 66 on Thursday. … To former LSU Coach Johnny Jones. He turned 57 on Friday. … To DeAndre Liggins. He turned 30 on Saturday. … To Erik Daniels. He turns 36 on Sunday (today). … To Chris Gettelfinger. He turns 60 on Sunday (today).

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