The FBI has ignited a prairie fire which could expose the sewer full of rats college basketball most definitely is, and oddly enough, it seems only appropriate Rick Pitino is the lynchpin of this mind-boggling, paint-by-the-numbers scandal. Pitino has always been a huge set of curious contradictions to me. One of his players at Kentucky once told me he’d always bring a priest on the road with the team, mass was celebrated game day, and Pitino not only attended, he was darn serious about singing the hymns and reading the scripture. But then a Lexington TV sportscaster told me of the time his station put a microphone on Pitino during a game for a feature story, and the coach’s language was so profane and downright vulgar, it couldn’t even be used. Another media member once told me about how Pitino unmercifully publically berated and humiliated a mid-management employee in the UK athletic department over a mistake so trivial it barely warranted mentioning. Then Pitino turned around after the season and invited this man and his wife on a lavish European vacation so expensive this working-class fellow could never afford on his own. No worry, Rick picked up the tab for everything.
However, the most monumental contradiction in Rick’s narrative may be yet to come. Is it possible that Pitino, a Hall of Fame coach who has won two NCAA championships, could spent the twilight of his life fighting like hell to keep out of jail? If the grim picture some legal experts are painting is accurate, and the lawsuit Pitino filed against Adidas last week would seem to indicate, the answer to that question is an unequivocal “YES!”
But imagine the incredulous entertainment sports fans are in for the next few years as this all plays out? Get your soda and popcorn out, because the NCAA’s version of “The Watergate Hearings” may be at theaters soon, sans the old country lawyer, and it has the potential to be one blockbuster.
Why don’t I start by saying, I have always heard college basketball is pretty much controlled by an elite group of sneaker executives and AAU monarchs, whose thumbs up or thumbs down determines the fate of virtually everyone. It starts with sneaker company-sponsored AAU teams, who recruit prospects as young as 12 and 13. The sneaker companies will eventually funnel their best AAU prospects into its most high-profile platforms, so it is no coincidence schools like North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, etc. end up with the best recruiting classes each year. The players are not only compensated handsomely along the way, but they eventually are pointed in the direction of agents and promotional opportunities which reflect the interest of the sneaker companies. In other words, it is a black market which stays highly secretive for the simple reason any exposure could lead to everything from NCAA sanctions to serious federal violations ranging from wire fraud to conspiracy. The point has been raised: why would Nike point a player in the direction of one school, when it has close to eighty other clients. That answer may be forthcoming shortly…in courtroom testimony.
Louisville got the ball rolling by firing Pitino, and Pitino continued the momentum when he filed a lawsuit against Adidas so frivolous and questionable, most legal scholars have absolutely no clue what to make of it. Other than a lame attempt to preserve his reputation, which will be a shreds soon, if it not already is. His legal claim is that Adidas hired a rogue employee, who offered a prospect $100 grand, and it ended up costing Rick his job. But legal eagles feel getting a remedy from Adidas is a stretch Willie McCovey might have problems pulling off. As one legal analysis put it, it’s about like filing a lawsuit against a robber, for robbing a bank at a time when you wanted to make a deposit, and were harmed by the inconvience and emotional damage. But no one expected Pitino to go lightly. As a showman, Rick could put P.T. Barnum to shame. In fact, as a showman, Rick could put Beau Bridges playing P.T. Barnum to shame. Expect fresh performances weekly.
It’s an insidious scam that went on for years. But the federal government was given a full window and front-row seat to this ongoing scandal when a disgraced Pittsburgh financial advisor found himself in a deep bind, facing serious prison time, and agreed as part of a plea bargain to show exactly how this black market works. A sting operation was set up. Twelve people were arrested and indicted. But word quickly spread in legal circles this is just the tip of the iceberg. The 12 arrested, some facing charges that could bring as much as 90 years of prison time, were actually pawns on this chessboard, and the feds are actually after those kings and queens. But these pawns, whom the feds have dead to rights for felonies that could put them behind bars for the rest of their natural lives, can finger the big boys and that’s where this whole rodeo gets real interesting.
How concerned are the rest of the college coaches about this prairie fire engulfing them? The Los Angeles Times reports one of its sources with Justice Department connections estimates 40 to 50 more coaches will be out of work by spring. Another source said this could end up involving over 100 schools. And when someone as prominent as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim makes a statement like, “I think the FBI could do a lot better investigating criminals and terrorists than they can investigating college basketball,” it doesn’t conjure up the image of a completely honorable, totally above-board organization that welcomes scrutiny from anyone. Someone might explain to Boeheim that if the bribery, fraud and corruption charges laid out by the Justice Department against those arrested are accurate, the FBI would appear to be investigation criminals when investigating college basketball. The Kansas City Star anonymously quoted a major college coach as saying, “They acted as if they uncovered a mystery. I read it and I’m like, ‘Are you (expletive) kidding me? that’s all they got?’” Meaning, of course, if all the bad guy bagmen in this fiasco end up having to talk, a code of omerta will broken like this country hasn’t seen since Joseph Valachi made an appearance before the McClellan Committee.
Can you imagine the humdinger testimony the general public will be store for if some of the biggest names in the college basketball coaching profession are dragged into federal court, put under oath, and asked to explain what they know about under-the-table payments for five-star recruits? Or some of the testimony that could come forth if the most influential apparel company executives find themselves on the stand, with the threat of perjury hanging over them, and asked which players were bought and how much they were paid? Or if the most prominent AAU coaches are asked to state their name for the record, and get up in a federal courtroom and are questioned all about the clandestine procedures employed when their top players are recruited. Or bartered. “Yeah, my guy was all set to go to Harvard, but he decided Louisville had better student parking!” Or some of the testimony that could be unveiled if the players themselves are forced to tell who offered them what and how they intended on paying them under the table?
Like the final episode of “Dallas” or “Cheers” or “Friends,” it’s a show no one will want to miss.
Share this post!