Who’s real victim in FBI college basketball scandal?

Now that the first wave of arrests is complete and the initial, inevitable firings are in progress, it’s time to take a step back and consider the implications of this latest college basketball scandal.

Are the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York committed to rooting out corruption in quasi-amateur hoops, or are they operating as a more muscular arm of NCAA enforcement? Or are those two interests so intertwined as to be inseparable?

Though it’s always illuminating to see basketball’s underground economy laid bare, and always entertaining to see some of its sleazy characters forced to answer for their actions, it’s worth asking whether the crimes in question are of sufficient severity to warrant a multi-year, multi-million investigation.

It’s worth asking if these are crimes with actual victims.

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Timeline: The FBI’s college basketball allegations
Padgett promotion sends the wrong message | Sullivan

When the NCAA artificially suppresses the value of in-demand athletes, third parties are sure to step in to provide up-front cash in exchange for back-end commitments. And though there are NCAA rules against that sort of thing, and bribery and money laundering laws that come into play, it’s not clear who’s getting hurt here.

The standard argument is that schools that play by the rules are victimized by those that cheat. Yet if those rules are designed to keep revenue in the hands of coaches and administrators and out of the clutches of unsalaried labor, is it the job of government to assist in enforcing them?

“This is a rather novel attempt to criminalize the NCAA’s code of conduct,” says Indiana University business law professor Nathaniel Grow. “(It) could potentially face some resistance in the courts, considering that the entire concept of amateurism is currently being challenged under federal antitrust law in a different ongoing court case. As a result, one could question whether this is the type of conduct that the FBI should be prosecuting.”

One could question, too, whether the under-the-table flow of funds from agents and shoe companies to young athletes is something that should be regulated or encouraged. Do the interests of competitive balance and the appearance of amateurism outweigh an individual’s right to make a living off of a marketable talent? Do the athletes who contribute to a multi-billion-dollar business not deserve a bigger piece of the pie?

Consider: The $205 million contract extension Russell Westbrook signed Friday with the Oklahoma City Thunder could generate more than $6 million in commissions for his agent. By comparison, the $100,000 that Adidas representatives allegedly agreed to funnel to Louisville five-star recruit Brian Bowen projects as a pittance and an investment with an enormous potential return.

Additional coverage

Read the actual FBI’s NCAA investigation documents
Padgett assures fans he’s not a target of the FBI probe
Interim president suspends Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich
Coach Padgett praised by ESPN’s Dick Vitale, others

That the payments to Bowen are against NCAA rules does not necessarily make them immoral. If they place other schools at a disadvantage, so does Harvard’s endowment. Efforts to create a level playing field might be well-intended, but they invariably create barriers that stimulate subterfuge.

“I never wanted to be a college coach,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr told the San Jose Mercury News. “I don’t immerse myself in that stuff. The NBA is very pure. We don’t want to make apologies or concessions about what we’re doing. We’re just playing basketball. It’s a business. And the NCAA obviously has lots of things to figure out on many levels; who they are and what they’re doing.”

So, too, does the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Here follow the Top 10 sports quotes of an unusually wild week:

10. David Wright, New York Mets captain, on teammates’ anonymous criticisms of manager Terry Collins: “For a player to not put his name on the quote and to bash Terry, who has a lot of success for taking us to the playoffs in back-to-back years, in my opinion, that is cowardly and lazy. The man sits 10 feet from you. Go walk in there and say your gripes. Terry has treated us like men and adults.” (NorthJersey.com)

9. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers quarterback, on athletes and activism: “As much as some people want us to just shut up and play football and keep the politics to politics, sports and politics have always intersected.” (CBS Sports)

8. Michael Beasley, New York Knicks forward, on the inequities of college sports: “We bring a lot to these schools and we can’t even park in front of the arenas in games. They still make us, as freshman, park two parking lots away from the dorm rooms in the freezing cold. Do I think most of the players should be compensated? Yes. Because most of us don’t make it to this level. A lot of us don’t make it to the professional level, let alone the NBA.” (NorthJersey.com)

7. Chase Headley, New York Yankees infielder, on slugging rookie Aaron Judge: “It’s fun to watch someone hit a long, long home run and just put his head down and go and not show anybody up, let the swing speak for itself. It’s refreshing. The swing is just different. It’s like he is a 7-foot basketball player on a 9-foot goal.’’ (New York Post)

6. Pam Bondi, Florida attorney general, on the possibility of O.J. Simpson serving parole in Florida: “Floridians are well aware of Mr. Simpson’s background, his wanton disregard for the lives of others, and of his scofflaw attitude with respect to the heinous acts for which he has been found civilly liable. Our state should not become a country club for this convicted criminal.” (Letter to Department of Corrections)

5. Nick Saban, University of Alabama football coach, on fans leaving games early: “You all want to be a part of the team when we win. Why don’t you stay committed for 60 minutes and stay there and support the players who are doing a hell of a lot more and working a lot harder to try to satisfy you and what you want than anything that you’re doing by staying at the game for a whole game?: (Hey Coach & The Nick Saban Show)

4. Mike Leach, Washington State football coach, on the scene after Cougars’ upset of USC: “It’s like Woodstock, except everybody has their clothes on.” (ESPN)

3. Urban Meyer, Ohio State football coach, on ending corruption in college sports: “If you intentionally lie about committing violations, your career is over. You’re not suspended for two games [or] some of the silly penalties you have — you can’t talk to a recruit for a week and a half or something like that. No. You’re finished. That will clean up some things.” (97.1 The Fan)

2. Sonny Vaccaro, former shoe company executive, on the root of college basketball corruption: “The biggest culprit in this, and you’re going to laugh at me, is the NCAA. The NCAA itself has this fraudulent thing that the public has swallowed, the courts have swallowed, called amateurism. The (five-star prospect) is no different than the young man signing with the Knicks or Nets. They’re professional at this level.

“(The NCAA) lives in an archaic, self-serving world.  They’ll never recognize how the athletes are getting used.” (New York Post)

1. Joon Kim, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announcing arrests in college basketball bribery case: “The picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one — coaches at some of the nation’s top programs taking cash bribes, managers and advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of a global sportswear company funneling cash to families of high school recruits.” (News conference)

Tim Sullivan can be reached at (502) 582-4650, [email protected] or @TimSullivan714

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